CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Exploiting online raunch at the polls

What person of good character would be in favor of child porn, asks CNET News.com's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh. That question goes to the heart of a cynical tactic emerging in this fall's national elections.

What is it with state attorneys general trying to stamp out Internet vice around election time?

On Oct. 27, 1998, precisely one week before Election Day, the New York State Attorney General's Office raided an Internet provider in Buffalo and confiscated its news server. The charge, according to former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, was that BuffNet carried Usenet newsgroups where child pornography could be found. It could be found, that is, if someone looked hard enough--and Vacco's investigators were nothing if not determined.

The ploy didn't work. In one of the closest statewide contests ever, Vacco lost to Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, by a vote of 2,084,948 to 2,059,762--a whisker-thin margin of just 25,186 votes.

This year, attorneys general for Pennsylvania and Michigan, gubernatorial hopefuls both, are testing the same underhanded tactic. In moves that are simultaneously constitutionally dubious and coldly calculating, they're betting they can win votes by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, who leads her Republican rival by about 12 percentage points in a recent poll, ordered Internet billing companies not to collect money for purported child porn sites.

"While it is unfortunate that it took this type of action to sever the funding from these appalling Web sites, their compliance is definitely a step in the right direction," Granholm said in a statement.

They're betting they can win votes by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Sounds good, right? After all, what person of good character would be in favor of child porn?

Well, the story's not that simple. It turns out that in Granholm's yen for headlines, she targeted sites that feature only adult erotica--and their operators are seeing red, not blue.

In an investigative article, Adult Video News reported the reactions of perfectly legal adult porn industry groups irate about having their sign-up service disconnected. "This is a witch hunt," one said. "I mean, if she wants to see child pornography sites, I'll send her the f***ing links myself. She's looking in the wrong place. She's looking at the mainstream adult Internet."

Granholm's efforts are also constitutionally suspect. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that only porn produced with real children could be censored. "Morphed" or fantasy porn produced using adult actors or bit-twiddled using computers was offensive but legal, the court ruled.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher, a Republican, is also running for governor. He's behind in the polls by about 7 percent. And, like Granholm, he's decided to target online raunch and ribaldry.

Last Tuesday, Fisher ordered WorldCom, the bankrupt Internet and voice provider, to block access to five purported child pornography sites. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania enacted a law that says an Internet provider must block child porn sites "accessible through its service in a manner accessible to persons located within this commonwealth within five business days" after being notified by the attorney general.

It turns out that in Granholm's yen for headlines, she targeted sites that feature only adult erotica--and their operators are seeing red, not blue.

What Fisher's office did not tell the press was the breathtakingly silly nature of his order, which now has been approved by a county judge. Fisher demanded, according to a person familiar with the matter, that WorldCom block access to all of Terra.es, Spain's largest Internet portal.

That site is owned by Terra Lycos. Requiring an Internet provider to block all of Terra.es makes as much sense as blocking all of Yahoo because of one illegal Geocities page--or, perhaps more to the point, torching a library to prevent patrons from reading one particular book.

A second reason why Fisher's move is just plain pernicious is that it's very, very difficult for an Internet provider to block access to a site for people living in only one state. Internet access simply isn't organized around political boundaries. What's more likely to happen is that WorldCom, just to be safe, would block access to Terra.es for all its subscribers--and WorldCom carried about 30 percent of U.S. Internet traffic last year.

WorldCom's response is due by the end of the day Monday, and the embattled company has two obvious options. It could ban Terra.es and the other sites, which would prompt certain outrage by Spanish-speaking customers and set a terrible precedent. Or it could fight back in Montgomery County court, which a person close to WorldCom tells me is more likely to happen.

Let's hope that WorldCom does the right thing. And let's hope that voters do the right thing by recognizing politicians' deceptive rhetoric about online porn--and voting these bums out of office.