A plan to cleanse child pornography from the Internet deals with a very small part of the Web and will do little to solve the problem, say security experts, civil libertarians and companies.
This week, Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable, three of the nation's largest Internet service providers, agreed to block access to newsgroups — online message boards popular in the 1980s — that offer child pornography.
The agreement announced by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo follows a months-long investigation. His office found 88 newsgroups, also known as bulletin boards with 11,390 sexually lewd photos of prepubescent children, some being raped. Cuomo says the porn is pervasive and "horrific."
"It needs to be stopped."
The accord is part of a larger effort to hold Internet service providers, including social networking sites such as Facebook, responsible for their online content. Its focus on newsgroups involves few people, however.
"We're talking about a very small number" of customers, "well under 1%" who use newsgroups to post text and files to others with similar interests, says Matt Sullivan, Sprint spokesman.
"This is an area of the Internet that is ignored by most people" because it's antiquated but may appeal to child porn traffickers because it's often not monitored, says Eric Rabe, Verizon's spokesman. He says Verizon will take down small ones, many of which are inactive or can be accessed in other ways.
Rabe says their removal will make it harder for people to access child porn. Time Warner Cable will remove access to all newsgroups, says spokesman Alex Dudley, citing the few users.
"This is by no means a panacea but it's an easy step for us from a business and risk-management perspective," he said.
Cuomo said the companies would also block websites that feature child porn but the companies say they are already dealing with such sites.
Verizon is one of 12 firms that has signed an agreement with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to check their systems daily for child porn sites that have been identified by the center and placed on a watch list.
A 1999 federal law requires Internet service providers to report child porn on their systems to the center. While more than 4,000 providers exist, fewer than 400 report, says John Shehan, the center's director of exploited children services. He says no fines have been levied yet for not reporting.
Those reporting found more than 1.8 million child porn images and video last year alone and took them down, says Michelle Collins of the National Center.
"We're not going to block any website," says Dudley.
Dudley says Time Warner Cable will instead continue to report sites that contain child porn and close them.
"This is window-dressing," says John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit civil liberties group. Morris says porn traffickers easily disguise their identities and quickly open new sites once others are removed.