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ISPs Cave to Big Brother on Child Pornography

When the history of the Web's early years are written, one critical chapter will be the multiple ways government agencies have tried to censor, tax and otherwise inhibit the Internet, mostly unsuccessfully.

But today's NYT report that three big ISPs -- Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable -- have agreed to block access to child pornography under a new agreement with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo shows that fear tactics and hot-button issues can still bring even Internet stalwarts to their knees.

The agreement will require service providers to check pages against a register of explicit sites kept by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Newsgroups such as Usenet will be targeted in particular, while a library of more than 11,000 images will be used by investigators to help trace other offending sites.

One extremely strange aspect of the agreement has the three ISPs paying a combined total of $1.1 million to Cuomo's office and the missing-children center. This amounts to a tacit admission by the ISPs that they are responsible for web content accessed via their services. This damaging reversal could have alarming repercussions for Web companies and their users, since Internet providers have long insisted that they can't monitor the decentralized and often lawless avenues of the Web. It's not hard to imagine further demands that Web services censor or restrict access to material that various people -- or headline-grabbing politicians -- find objectionable.

According to the NYT, Cuomo essentially threatened the ISPs with prosecution for failing to enforce their customer-service agreements -- and the ISPs quickly buckled:

The agreements resulted from an eight-month investigation and sting operation in which undercover agents from Mr. Cuomo's office, posing as subscribers, complained to Internet providers that they were allowing child pornography to proliferate online, despite customer service agreements that discouraged such activity. Verizon, for example, warns its users that they risk losing their service if they transmit or disseminate sexually exploitative images of children.

After the companies ignored the investigators' complaints, the attorney general's office surfaced, threatening charges of fraud and deceptive business practices. The companies agreed to cooperate and began weeks of negotiations.

The NYT doesn't make clear whether Cuomo planned civil or criminal charges against the companies, although the latter would most certainly have gotten their attention. (The companies declined to comment in advance of a formal announcement scheduled for Tuesday.) Several months ago, Cuomo and other state attorneys general forced related agreements on Facebook and MySpace, which also stood accused of failing to protect children online.

Like most people, I hate child pornography, although I realize there are many cultural distinctions that need to be considered. One man's pornography is another's literature, i.e., Lolita. Therefore, it would be a challenge to define the content in a sensible way that would not encroach on our vital freedoms of speech and press. Of course, real child pornography is not a victimless crime, because there children somewhere being exploited in order to produce this garbage, but there are other laws aimed at attacking that problem.

Today's news is the latest disturbing reminder that there's a slippery slope down toward government's oppression of our freedoms. These invasive regulations always come in the name of fighting some evil or another -- terrorism, organized crime, porn. In the end, however, as we've seen again and again, those horrors continue while the freedoms protecting the rest of us atrophy. Cuomo's initiative is simply the latest in a series of bad ideas, as it will do nothing to protect children from those who would exploit them, while giving government agents new powers to spy on the rest of us.

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