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ISPs Agree to Block Child Pornography Sites:
The Washington Post reports:
Some of the nation's largest Internet service providers have agreed to block connections to newsgroups and Web sites that offer child pornography, according to an announcement today by the New York State Attorney General's Office.

The move follows an eight-month child pornography investigation. The probe turned up 88 newsgroups involving 11,390 sexually lewd photos featuring prepubescent children. Among them were photos of children being raped and sexual activity involving animals, according to state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.
The announcement over at the New York AG's website adds some details:
[T]he Attorney General's office developed a new system for identifying online content that contains child pornography. Every online picture has a unique "Hash Value" that, once identified and collected, can be used to digitally match the same image anywhere else it is distributed. By building a library of the Hash Values for images identified as being child pornography, the Attorney General's investigators were able to filter through tens of thousands of online files at a time, speedily identifying which Internet Service Providers were providing access to child pornography images.

In addition to eliminating the Newsgroups, the ISPs have also agreed to purge their servers of all child pornography websites identified by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children ("NCMEC"). NCMEC regularly reviews and updates its registry of these illegal sites to ensure the list reflects the current presence of such websites on the Internet.
  When Pennsylvania tried to do something somewhat similar -- albeit with court orders rather than a voluntary agreement -- Pennsylvania's effort was struck down as unconstitutional. I blogged about Pennsylvania law here in 2003, and the law was invalidated in CDT v. Pappert, 337 F. Supp.2d 606 (E.D. Pa. 2004).

  New York's effort is different in that the state has reached an agreement with the ISPs; the ISPs have agreed to "voluntarily" block the connections rather than be forced to do so. Off the top of my head, I don't know whether customers of these ISPs could still challenge the agreement on some of the constitutional grounds raised in the Pennsylvania case. I would think not, but I don't know.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "France Blocks Online Child Porn, Terrorism, Racism":
  2. ISPs Agree to Block Child Pornography Sites:
Blog Strike:
[Deleted by OK: Check the Portal, Blog strike, as all my grades have been submitted. And good luck at the firm this summer!]
6.10.2008 5:06pm
methodact:
Voluntarily? Ha! It was a shake-down.
6.10.2008 5:07pm
J. Aldridge:
Didn't the Feds always prohibit such things as pornography through the mails from the beginning?
6.10.2008 5:12pm
o:
If an agreement was reached, it sounds like the voluntary part had more to do with coercion that anything else.
6.10.2008 5:15pm
HumphreyBogus:
The capabilities of such a system--regardless of its legal merits--are highly dubious. "Hash values" would have to be extremely resistant to minor changes in images to be worth anything, as changing a couple of characters or pixels here and there is trivial, as spam emailers have conclusively proven.
6.10.2008 5:21pm
guest:
According to Declan McCullagh, writing in his CNET News.com blog:
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."


Declan is known to spin stories into notorious trolls on occasion, so I'd look for additional confirmation before treating this as gospel. Yet, Declan is also a well-known and somewhat respectable reporter who writes for a major online news outlet, and the chances are he's got backup for his facts and quotes.
6.10.2008 5:22pm
LM (mail):

The move follows an eight-month child pornography investigation. The probe turned up 88 newsgroups involving 11,390 sexually lewd photos featuring prepubescent children. Among them were photos of children being raped and sexual activity involving animals, according to state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

Are the newsgroup participants unaware this is illegal, or do they think they won't get caught? Are there "newsgroups" I'm unaware of where people are routinely and openly perpetrating or conspiring to commit other crimes? What a strange world.
6.10.2008 5:25pm
methodact:
Dunno where you get your reliable information. But Usenet has been my main source for the unvarnished "truth" for years and years.

Personally, I have downloaded approximately 16 GB of "news" in just the last 24 hours.
6.10.2008 5:39pm
guest:
David Kravetz, writing in Wired's Threat Level blog partially confirms Declan McCullagh's account. Kravetz writes:
The ISPs themselves said they would go even further and largely curb or derail access to Usenet, a 3-decade-old system designed to swap information electronically that became more of an underground service with the proliferation of the commercial internet.

(Emphasis added.)

It's worth mentioning that the NY OAG's press release contains the statement:
Among the steps Time Warner Cable is taking are removing Newsgroups from our Internet service....


This is consistent with the report that Time Warner is dropping all Usenet service.
6.10.2008 6:06pm
Tom Cross (www):
Wow. The government coerced blocking of 18,000+ Alt.* newsgroups containing millions of messages by several major ISPs has to be the largest act of censorship in United States history. Talk about collateral damage. Granted, most of these communities are still accessible to customers of these ISPs over web interfaces like Google groups, but if allowed to stand this agreement sets a terrible precedent. Through the transparent ruse of "voluntary agreements" Governments in the US can coerce ISPs to ban certain internet services and protocols wholesale because of a few bad actors even if the vast majority of the content carried by that protocol is protected first amendment activity. It is inevitable that intellectual property interests will follow suit and that this agreement will expand to encompass other services. This is the wrong way to fight child pornography.
6.10.2008 6:28pm
randal (mail):
This incident may not be as problematic as the headlines suggest. From the Wikipedia on Usenet:

Individual users usually read from and post messages to a local server operated by their ISP, university or employer. The servers then exchange the messages between one another, so that they are available to readers beyond the original server.

In other words, the way Usenet works is that ISPs actively run servers that host the content. This is unlike web content in general, for which ISPs act (for the most part) only as a conduit, not a store.

In other words, it doesn't appear that these ISPs are blocking access to Usenet, they are simply declining to host Usenet content themselves. Their subscribers can simply access Usenet via a server hosted elsewhere.

To be sure, this will have a detrimental impact on Usenet, which depends on ISPs and others to choose to host Usenet content.

Similarly,

the ISPs have also agreed to purge their servers of all child pornography websites

In no case does it appear that any ISP is blocking access to any Internet content. They are simply taking steps to avoid hosting this content themselves.

It's a fine line, but not a meaningless one.
6.10.2008 6:29pm
guest:
According to Mark Hopkins, writing in the Mashables blog:
The Mashable crew spent a great deal of time soliciting comments from Verizon, Time Warner and Sprint (as well as the NY AG office) on the veracity of Declan's claims, and all that we could elicit from them were basic numbers on the amount of households affected by their decision to block USENET (numbers that varied widely from the numbers in other published press releases, including the ones from the NY attorney general's release today). No one seemed willing to go on the record to discuss any aspects of the new filtration decision.


(Emphasis added.)

This may indicate that people are going into full PR damage-control mode.

Or it may just indicate that no one's ever heard of Mashables, and no flack is going to return their calls.
6.10.2008 7:29pm
youseeme:
Who cares about usenet? Most of this stuff is traded on p2p and tor nowadays. Frankly, I've never understood why p2p is tolerated - it's only purpose is to break the law (please don't tell me that you use p2p to trade word or powerpoint files... 'come on, there's nothing but copyrighted stuff and underage porn there)...
6.10.2008 7:44pm
Fub:
Tom Cross wrote at 6.10.2008 5:28pm:
Wow. The government coerced blocking of 18,000+ Alt.* newsgroups containing millions of messages by several major ISPs has to be the largest act of censorship in United States history.
To be even more specific, it's also the largest exercise of the heckler's veto in history.

Want to shut down some usenet newsgroup because the discussion there isn't to your liking? Just flood the newsgroup with material that will cause the ISPs to drop it from their usenet servers under this "voluntary" agreement with NY government.

It's also apparently a one-way ratchet, somewhat like the more stupidly administered anti-spam blacklists. Once a newsgroup is removed from a cooperating ISP's servers, it is unlikely ever to be carried again, even if the flood of objectionable material ceases.
6.10.2008 8:01pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

Who cares about usenet?


I've been posting to Usenet for over a decade now -- and using it for its original purpose of an online forum -- and I'd be quite annoyed if my ISP cut off access. Luckily I switched to a German server five years ago.
6.10.2008 8:02pm
Shane (mail) (www):
youseeme,

I use a program called Miro for watching plenty of legitimate videos, and it uses the BitTorrent protocol to distribute all sorts of videos with explicit consent of the content owners, from TED talks to PBS and Discovery Channel documentaries. Norwegian public broadcaster NRK was able to cut costs of internet video delivery by using BitTorrent. Hell, the original developers of BitTorrent now use p2p to distribute movie rentals with licensing deals from the studios. It's a pretty bold claim to say that p2p has no legitimate uses.

Miro Channel guide for English-language channels - content owners from Wired and PBS to small filmmakers trying to get noticed have voluntarily decided to make their content available over p2p.

From the content creator's point of view, p2p is the most cost-effective distribution method without following the terms of someone like Youtube. For example, if I want to distribute HD video, or video with profanity, or something that otherwise does not comply with the TOS for YouTube, Vimeo, etc., then p2p is probably the best method to reach my audience. NBC, ABC, and others hosting free videos of their entire television shows would probably realize huge cost savings if they distributed video in this manner - they can still embed advertising, etc. as they currently do.
6.10.2008 8:05pm
Shane (mail) (www):
Oh and back to the content of the original post - it would be pretty easy to get child pornography past any filter relying on hashes - changing a single bit (like the least significant bit of a single pixel) should produce a file whose hash is completely different from the hash of the original. Ideally, changing a single bit on the original would change half the bits of the hash.

This strategy for fighting child pornography sounds like it would be way too expensive for near zero impact.

A child pornography distribution ring would probably only have to spend 5 minutes putting together a script that does the above automatically as some plugin for whatever software they're viewing the usenet posts with.
6.10.2008 8:12pm
Tyrant King Porn Dragon (mail):
Well, so much for 4chan :P

Also, I agree with Fub and Tom Cross, and hope that randal is right.
6.10.2008 8:24pm
Guest101:

Want to shut down some usenet newsgroup because the discussion there isn't to your liking? Just flood the newsgroup with material that will cause the ISPs to drop it from their usenet servers under this "voluntary" agreement with NY government.


Committing a multitude of federal felonies (assuming the material you're talking about is child porn, as under this agreement it would have to be) is hardly a cost-free way of exercising a heckler's veto.
6.10.2008 8:27pm
Bode (mail):
This is a huge yawn, and no one should care. Anyone who knows anything about Usenet -- and shame on Declan and others for not -- should know that this will not make a substantive difference to anyone. Usenet is a peer-to-peer message sharing system. That is, a message is posted to a computer, which then shares it with other computers. It's a true relic, designed when networks were very slow and very unreliable. If Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, or any other large ISPs choose to simply abandon offering Usenet news, those small number of users would simply shift to one of the dedicated providers of this service.

If you're interested in data, check out the web site www.top1000.org. You'll notice that Sprint, Time Warner (roadrunner) and Verizon do not appear anywhere near the top of the list of largest Usenet providers. The largest providers all charge a nominal fee per month - $5 to $15 a month - for access to an enormous amount of data. These providers typically store data for a much longer time than the large ISPs as well -- especially important given that the data is primarily digital media (most pirated, of course).

Anyway, like I said, I'm not sure why people are concerned about this. If you really cared, you could run your own server, or pay someone for a superior class of product. Those who aren't trafficking in child pr0n or copyrighted materials will lose nothing. I mean, the commercial Usenet providers don't offer SSL-encrypted for no reason. And this hardly seems like it tramples on first-amendment rights: a bot searching for jpegs that match known child pr0n hashes? Pretty basic, and then those groups are no longer carried by the big ISPs...
6.10.2008 8:39pm
Fub:
Guest101 wrote at 6.10.2008 7:27pm:
Committing a multitude of federal felonies (assuming the material you're talking about is child porn, as under this agreement it would have to be) is hardly a cost-free way of exercising a heckler's veto.
A valid point IF:

1. the heckler is subject to USA jurisdiction; and
2. US authorities actually bother to track down and prosecute.

At least so far, authorities appear to prefer to ban all speech in the medium than to trace and prosecute the actual perpetrators. It's much easier to ban all speech in the medium and get extra political points for pontificating "it's for the children".
6.10.2008 8:43pm
Sevesteen (mail):
I suspect this is merely hastening a business decision that would have been made soon anyhow--I'd be surprised if a quarter of typical internet users even know that their ISP has a newsgroup server, more surprised if anywhere near 5% used them regularly. Those who still want newsgroups can go to Google Groups, a free news server, or pay a bit for access to a commercial server.

But it won't do anything significant about child porn.
6.10.2008 8:49pm
Bode (mail):
Some people have inquired about copyrighted material and Usenet. Lest there be any questions, I recommend you visit www.newzbin.com. Trust me, there is an enormous amount of pirated audio/video on Usenet. Moreover, the copyrighted media making its way onto the Usenet is not doing so primarily through large US ISPs. However, it also isn't making its way off of those servers -- I don't believe any of the large cable modem providers store more than a day or two of the binary hierarchy (which might as well be called alt.copyrighted_digital_media*).

The standard answer, and I have no reason to doubt it, is that this type of piracy continues to exist for two reasons. First, it's moderately difficult, which means only a small number of people can figure out how to work it. And second, because there's no central communication to intercept ala p2p protocols, there's no way to know what's going on. So, small in the grand scheme of things and too hard, so the MPAA/RIAA/etc let it slide. Child pr0n has apparently altered the equation, which is fine by me.

Finally, I wanted to mention that google offers a free web-based portal into Usenet: groups.google.com. Not only do they have the most complete Usenet archive but you can access everything through the web. So, anyone who claims they're being denied their Usenet, they can use Google's interface to flame like it's 1988 again.
6.10.2008 8:50pm
guest:
The Associated press reports in a story by Michael Gormley that Time Warner corporate spokesman Alex Dudley has gone on the record. Time Warner will eliminate all Usenet access for its subscribers.
The company will eliminate all newsgroups by the end of the month, [Dudley] said.

So, it looks like Declan's CNET account is confirmed.

The New York Attorney General just pressured Time Warner into eliminating a vast diversity of communications. In the AG's zeal to go after child porn, he's nuked Usenet.
6.10.2008 8:55pm
Guest101:

A valid point IF:

1. the heckler is subject to USA jurisdiction; and
2. US authorities actually bother to track down and prosecute.

True, but the feds do actually make child porn prosecutions a fairly high priority, particularly if you're trafficking in high volumes of it. I saw a lot of child porn prosecutions in the 2 years I spent clerking; at least 3 or 4 before the judge for whom I clerked and many more before other judges. Not just producers, either; anyone trading large amounts of the stuff online is taking a risk-- assuming, as you point out, that they are subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
6.10.2008 8:55pm
r.friedman (mail):
Of course this is all Tom Goldstein's fault for losing the BrandX case. If it were firmly established that the communications giants were common carriers, the very idea of preventing connections would be verboten.

Sometime we are going to have to face up to the witch hunt that has been directed at child sex offenders. Under the leadership of John Ashcroft, we now have large number of police trolling the internet entrapping these fantastists and seeking to maximize their sentences. We have sex offender web pages, the majority of whose denizens were convicted of nothing more than what was found within one's right of privacy under Lawrence v. Texas. We have residential exclusion laws that leave released sex offenders free to live under remote highway bridges. We have the pseudoscience of the penile plethysmograph. We have the post-incarceration incarceration of Kansas v. Marsh.

This has been as much a force in the narrowing of civil rights in the Bush years as has the intelligence community, because child sex offenders and illegal immigrants are the means by which intelligence methods are entering the world of domestic criminal law enforcement.
6.10.2008 9:18pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
If enough ISPs block sites containing the child pornography photos in the federal government's database (and wasn't that an interesting task?), then the whole scheme will fail within a few weeks. Child pornography sites with photos in the database will remove or alter the photos, get new internet addresses, and regain their customers within days.

This action by the New York State AG is just a publicity stunt. He can block, but not shut down, child pornography sites because they are not in the U.S.
6.10.2008 9:59pm
Kevin Murphy:
To what extent are these ISPs the holders of government licenses or monopolies? I think the cable companies and phone companies have significant government permissions and effective assigned territories, whether through merger regulation or direct award of franchises. How free ARE these negotiations if the state has the ability to make or break them? Further, are there some customers who have no other choices in ISP, or no others choices of equivalent quality?

Not that I much care what happens with child porn, but I do worry about the internet coming under effective state control as ISPs consolidate and Big Internet and Big Government make deciswions for the rest of us.
6.11.2008 1:06am
Fub:
Guest101 wrote at 6.10.2008 7:55pm:
[rationale elided]... anyone trading large amounts of the stuff online is taking a risk-- assuming, as you point out, that they are subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
We're in general agreement, but I think you overestimate and underestimate:

Overestimate the willingness of investigators to trace usenet posts from the destination usenet server through endless chains of IP proxies, anonymizing email relays, and mail-to-news gateway servers. Any number of the intermediaries may not be USA domestic, and even a successful trace might turn up somebody posting usnet articles from Lower Slobbovia, which has no extradition treaty with the USA.

Underestimate the degree to which well applied pseudonymity described above can approach actual anonymity.

No anonymizing techniques are perfect, but plenty are considerably more difficult to crack than just a single subpoena for the IP from which an article was posted. The techniques aren't rocket science, and they are very old news.

My point is that shutting down a few major ISP usenet servers, or even a few websites, will prove ineffective in its stated purpose. It is pure grandstanding for the rubes. It will, of course, inconvenience large numbers of people who do not traffic in the prohibited material, but use usenet for perfectly legitimate purposes.

It also sends a message that should alarm any citizen: some American prosecutors are willing to imitate the totalitarian communists who rule China, just to score political points.
6.11.2008 1:38am
Deoxy (mail):
"It also sends a message that should alarm any citizen: some American prosecutors are willing to imitate the totalitarian communists who rule China, just to score political points."

This is the real message here, but it's not remotely new.

As has been pointed out above, the real damage done in this particular instance is very close to zero.

But the precedent (precedent only in scale and relation to the internet - the government has used "voluntary" agreements to do all kinds of things it's not allowed to do, and it's been doing it for years) is indeed very bad.
6.11.2008 11:09am
PC:
Frankly, I've never understood why p2p is tolerated - it's only purpose is to break the law


Apparently you have never heard of a little application called Skype. Or a marginally successful game called World of Warcraft. Both use p2p. The newest version of the Adobe Flash player will have p2p built in. Of course not that many people use the Flash player, it only has a 98% penetration.
6.11.2008 11:40am
Sigivald (mail):
Tom Cross: But the Government only asked them to block 88 newsgroups - presumably ones actually aimed at the illicit activity.

(I'm not going to go looking over the whole alt.* hierarchy for a list, but I'd be shocked if there weren't 80-odd newsgroups aimed at such things, especially if we go with the legal definition of "child pornography" as "any sexual content involving someone under 18", which includes plenty of content legal in most of Europe (eg, 16 and 17 year old women having sex), and thus not uncommon on Usenet.)

Asking them to block 88 specific newsgroups sounds like a narrowly tailored restriction, and my understanding is that child pornography bans have held up very well under Supreme Court challenges, so I'm not sure I see any Constitutional issue at all.

If ISPs are lazy and block the entire alt.* hierarchy, that still doesn't make it Government censorship of 18,000 groups - because the State didn't ask for it, and indeed doesn't desire that action.

PC: By "P2P" was plainly meant "P2P file 'sharing'", which derails the Skype and Games argument. (And details of the new Flash suggest that it's "P2P" features are not suitable for "file sharing" use.)
6.11.2008 12:13pm
xyzzy:
If ISPs are lazy and block the entire alt.* hierarchy, that still doesn't make it Government censorship of 18,000 groups - because the State didn't ask for it, and indeed doesn't desire that action.

Bullshit.

New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, in the prepared statement linked above says:
‘... I commend the companies that have stepped up today to embrace a new standard of responsibility, which should serve as a model for the entire industry.’

The New York Attorney General got exactly what he wanted. He threatened the ISPs with criminal prosecution to obtain the result he got.

It is reasonable to believe that the AG intended the consequences of his acts.
6.11.2008 1:37pm
Tom Cross (www):
Sigivald,

I'm sure if pressed the AG would take the argument there, but it doesn't hold water. Frankly, the actual consequences of the agreement are more important than the theoretical consequences on paper.

First, the AG most likely knew and agreed to what the internet companies were going to actually do as a result of the "agreement" and as xyzzy points out he clearly doesn't have any problem with the scope of what was taken down.

Second, no one asked anyone to block 88 newsgroups. What the AG asked the ISPs to do is institute a hash based image filter on Usenet content. This may be prohibitively expensive or it might not even be technically feasible. There is no way to know, because none of the companies party to the "agreement" actually did this. This narrow proposal is included specifically because it can be used rhetorically as you just did. It is not a serious idea as evidenced by the fact that no one is actually implementing it.

You would think that if you went to the trouble of architecting something like this and getting a bunch of people to agree to it you'd be interested in whether or not they were actually going to do the specific thing you were proposing. Furthermore, to my first point, you'd think that if the AG came to you with something like this and you decided to do something else instead (such as block a large subset of the newsgroups) you would think it important to check with the AG to make sure that what you were actually going to do was "OK" with him. Its possible, in fact, likely that the ISPs proposed blocking the 88 specific newsgroups and the AG turned them down.

Third, from a Constitutional perspective, there is a "least restrictive means" test that applies to prior restraint on speech. Were this agreement a piece of legislation, the fact that all of this legitimate content got pulled as a practical result would almost certainly be enough to overturn it.

Fourth, this sort of thing ought to be done by legislation subject to judicial review, and not by coercive pressure from an AG. Who gave the NY AG the right to architect a mechanism for Internet censorship for the United States absent input from any legislature and operate it absent any judicial review? People talk about "legislating from the bench." Clearly the invention and implementation of such a censorship regime whole cloth from a state prosecutor's office is WAY outside the scope of the political authority of that office!
6.11.2008 2:24pm