N.Y. attorney general forces ISPs to curb Usenet access

Time Warner Cable pulls the plug on all newsgroups after Andrew Cuomo's office finds child porn on 88 of them. Verizon Communications and Sprint plan to limit Usenet too.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

[Update 6/12 11:40 a.m. Verizon has offered more details on what newsgroups will be removed. And here's background on whether or not Usenet is being blocked.]

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint would "shut down major sources of online child pornography."

What Cuomo didn't say is that his agreement with broadband providers means that they will broadly curb customers' access to Usenet--the venerable pre-Web home of some 100,000 discussion groups, only a handful of which contain illegal material.

Time Warner Cable said it will cease to offer customers access to any Usenet newsgroups, a decision that will affect customers nationwide. Sprint said it would no longer offer any of the tens of thousands of alt.* Usenet newsgroups. Verizon's plan is to eliminate some "fairly broad newsgroup areas."

It's not quite the death of Usenet (which has been predicted, incorrectly, countless times). But if a politician can pressure three of the largest Internet providers into censorial acquiescence, it may only be a matter of time before smaller ones like Supernews, Giganews, and Usenet.com feel the squeeze.

Cuomo's office said it had "reviewed millions of pictures over several months" and found only "88 different newsgroups" containing child pornography.

"We are attacking this problem by working with Internet service providers to ensure they do not play host to this immoral business," Cuomo said in a statement released after a press conference in New York. "I call on all Internet service providers to follow their example and help deter the spread of online child porn."

That amounts to an odd claim: stopping the spread of child porn on a total of 88 newsgroups necessarily means coercing broadband providers to pull the plug on thousands of innocuous ones. Usenet's sprawling set of hierarchically arranged discussion areas include ones that go by names like sci.math, rec.motorcycles, and comp.os.linux.admin. It has been partially succeeded by mailing lists, message boards, and blogs; AOL stopped carrying Usenet in 2005, but AT&T still does.

Many of Usenet's discussion groups are scarcely different from discussions you might find on the Web at, say, Yahoo Groups. Because there's no central authority, however--Usenet servers exchange messages in a cooperative, peer-to-peer manner--politicians are more likely to look askance at the concept. (For that matter, so is the Recording Industry Association of America.)

It's true that of the three broadband providers Cuomo singled out, only Time Warner Cable will cease to offer Usenet. Sprint is cutting off the alt.* hierarchy, Usenet's largest, which will primarily affect its business customers. A Verizon spokesman said he didn't know details, saying "newsgroups that deal with scientific endeavors" will stick around but admitted that all of the alt.* hierarchy could be toast.

Yet Usenet's sprawling alt.* hierarchy contains tens of thousands of discussion groups--one count says there are 18,408 of them--including alt.adoption, alt.atheism, alt.gothic, and alt.tv.simpsons. Ditching all of those means eliminating perfectly legitimate conversations.

"The Internet service providers should not be blocking whole sections of the Internet, all Usenet groups, because there may be some illegal material buried somewhere," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "That's taking a sledgehammer to an ant."

For their part, the three broadband providers that Cuomo singled out on Tuesday said that it makes sense for them to curb Usenet.

"We're going to stop offering our subscribers newsgroups," said Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "Some of the early press on this indicated we were going to block certain Web sites. We're not going to do that."

That was a reference to a New York Times article with the headline: "Net Providers to Block Sites With Child Sex." It said "the providers will also cut off access to Web sites that traffic in child pornography."

That is common practice in some countries. The French government and broadband providers have reportedly inked a deal to block Web sites with child porn, terrorist, and hate speech, for instance.

What Time Warner Cable will do, Dudley said, is remove illegal content on its network when alerted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (This is already required by law, has been standard business practice for many years, and is not a change in policy.)

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe said much the same thing: "We're not blocking any access to Web sites."

In the United States, the idea of blocking Web sites is not new. The state of Pennsylvania came up with that idea five years ago, and Internet providers took issue with it through a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The Pennsylvania statute said "an Internet service provider shall remove or disable access to child pornography...accessible through its service" within five business days after the attorney general notified them of its existence.

A federal judge in Philadelphia overturned that law on First Amendment grounds, ruling that it constituted a "prior restraint on protected expression" and that its "extraterritorial effect violates the dormant Commerce Clause" of the U.S. Constitution.

New York's attorney general surely knows about that precedent. That is probably why he settled for strong-arming broadband providers into curbing Usenet--perhaps with the threat of a press conference that would all but accuse the providers of trafficking in child porn--instead of the far more difficult process of defending a law requiring them to curb Usenet.