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Internet

Prodigy blocks child porn

Prodigy is cutting off members' access to some Internet newsgroups that the company says regularly provide access to child pornography.

    Prodigy is cutting off members' access to some Internet newsgroups that the company says regularly provide access to child pornography.

    Child pornography, already illegal in the United States and several other countries, has become the emotional touchstone in heated Internet censorship debates.

    Now that the Supreme Court has overturned the Communications Decency Act, online providers and governments alike are struggling with how they will deal with pornographic and obscene images. Moreover, Prodigy announced in April that it is launching service in ten cities in China, a country that has very restrictive laws.

    But while the debate continues to rage over what should and shouldn't be filtered by online services and ISPs, even the most ardent of civil libertarians agree that child pornography fits into a different category altogether. In fact, the FBI has been pursuing child pornographers on the Net for several years.

    Even so, many online services and ISPs such as CompuServe have been reluctant to censor anything on the Net for fear that it would set a bad precedent, or conversely, for fear that they would be held legally accountable for proper filtering.

    Providers generally have maintained that they cannot control what people--including their own members--do on the Internet and have been reluctant to control access in any way. It is unclear exactly why Prodigy decided to cut off access to certain newsgroups and how it determined which newsgroups would "likely contain child pornography."

    The online service could not be reached for comment but the company issued a release saying that it did not consider the move to be censorship. "This is not an issue of freedom of speech," Marc Jacobson, vice president and general counsel of Prodigy said in a statement.

    Instead, he said, "by carefully taking this very important step we are saying we, as a responsible company doing business on the Internet, will not carry newsgroups that exploit children."

    But others wondered who would determine what is pornography and how they would choose which groups to keep from their viewers. "One of the issues it raises is by whose standards is material pornographic," said William A. Tanenbaum, a partner with law firm Rogers & Wells and a specialist in computers and intellectual property.

    Mark Mooradian, an analyst for Jupiter Communications, agreed. "The trick with censorship is it then becomes who is exercising editorial control."