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Antiporn group targets ISPs

An Oklahoma antiporn group is calling on surfers to "turn in" ISPs that allow access to newsgroups with sexually oriented material.

An Oklahoma antiporn group is waging war against Internet service providers, calling on surfers to "turn in" services that allow access to newsgroups that contain sexually oriented material.

Oklahomans for Children and Families launched the campaign on its Web site and Usenet newsgroups in the past month, asking people to send a letter to ISPs that allegedly host newsgroups containing child pornography and "obscenity." OCAF, as it's known, sends copies of the letters to local and federal law enforcement officials because it says such material is illegal.

Acknowledging the Communications Decency Act case now before the Supreme Court, OCAF says it only wants to apply existing criminal laws to the Net, not create new ones. But free-speech advocates say the group is promoting censorship by forcing ISPs to stifle material that is legal in many cases.

Targeted ISPs are pressured by OCAF to remove newsgroups that depict acts of "actual and simulated intercourse, perverted sexual intercourse, conduct between members of the same sex, exhibiting human genitals, masturbation, sadomasochistic abuse, and sexual conduct involving children."

"We're focusing on ISPs that carry newsgroups that distribute illegal material. We're not talking about indecency. We're talking about obscenity and child pornography," said Paul Cardin, director of OCAF's Center for a Family Friendly Internet. "The enforcement of existing laws is not censorship."

However, when asked to block newsgroups, national and regional ISPs often find themselves in difficult positions because obscenity is defined locally. Already, one ISP that received a letter from OCAF has removed at least 30 newsgroups in "alt.sex," "alt.binaries.erotica," and other listings found through keyword searches for "preteen" and "pedophilia."

Last week, Erol's Internet service of Virginia stopped its 195,000 customers from using the groups but denies that it has caved in to threats from OCAF, which has 20,000 supporters.

Erol's CEO Dennis Spina said the company was alerted to the legal ramifications by a variety of sources and found the newsgroups in question through internal monitoring.

"Having child pornography hosted on our network is not right," Spina said today. "We're not here to be the Net police, but when things are illegal we do what's right." Spina added, however, that "generally the end user should be the one that makes the decision on whether to look at a site. If you're not old enough, your parents should be responsible--just like with television."

In the letter sent to ISPs such as Erol's, OCAF warns: "We believe this material may, indeed, be obscene (and/or) child pornography in violation of the state laws, and also in violation of federal laws. Since only a judge can make a determination on whether material is obscene (and/or) child pornography, this information has been forwarded to the appropriate local law enforcement agencies and to the FBI."

This is not OCAF's first battle against sexual or erotic newsgroups.

Threatened by OCAF and Oklahoma Rep. Fred Perry (R-Tulsa) last April with the enforcement of a new state law, the University of Oklahoma barred campus access to almost 200 Internet newsgroups in the "alt.sex" area of Usenet.

Journalism professor Bill Loving sued the university on the grounds of censorship under the First Amendment but lost his challenge in January.

The university ended up supplying two servers, one with full Net access and one for people under age 18. But Loving is still appealing the ruling.

"There is an old saying: 'The censor is always active and never satisfied,'" Loving said today. "OCAF doesn't make a distinction between what is obscene and those materials that just make its supporters uncomfortable. Groups like OCAF wind up tossing a lot of First Amendment protected speech onto the bonfire in order to serve their interests."

Before OCAF came along, ISPs already had tactics for dealing with controversial newsgroups and other sexual material on the Internet.

For example, most Net access companies offer blocking software to customers for free. Some, such as America Online, remove newsgroups proven to contain illegal activity and scan them before offering them to subscribers.

"If there is a newsgroup that traffics illegal material, like child pornography or pirated software, then we're not going to give access to that illegal material," AOL spokesman Andrew Graziani said.

Like the free-speech advocates that mobilize on the Net, OCAF says it also represents the interests of online citizens and will continue to crack down on ISPs.

"We can't go after every ISP in the country by ourselves, but there are other individuals who share our concerns in every city," Cardin said. "ISPs want to stay competitive and not lose customers. And unless someone confronts them with the law, most will not remove this material voluntarily."