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Pennsylvania child porn law causes ‘massive overblocking of sites’

Unconstitutional failure, civil rights groups say

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More than a million completely legal websites have been blocked by US ISPs in response to the Pennsylvanian statute against Internet Child Pornography.

Now the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the
American Civil Liberty Union's Pennsylvanian Branch are hoping that District Jugde Jan E. Dubois will rule the statute unconstitutional.

Representatives of CDT said after the first week of the court hearing they were optimistic about their case.

"Witnesses from the Attorney General's office have acknowledged that they were aware that innocent sites have been blocked, too," says CDT attorney Lara Flint. The court hearing is still continuing and the final decision is expected in the next weeks, said Flint.

The free speech organisations hope that a decision against the Statute may stop the introduction of similar laws already under discussion in Maryland, Oklahoma and New Jersey and lead to a more targeted and effective fight against child pornography.

CDT's first witness, community service activist Laura Blain, had several legal web sites blocked as a result of a blocking order, one of them the website of a school. "In what seemed a Kafkaesque experience, she went from administrator to administrator because she only by chance got notice that the sites were unaccessible and nobody could tell her why," explains CDT Associate Director Alan Davidson.

The secrecy of the blocking orders which were mainly served as informal notices without court orders were the reason why it took more than a year before the massive overblocking of sites was noticed by the public. "When users cannot access a website, they tend to accept that as problem of the specific site."

ISPs on the other hand were afraid of being denounced by the authorities as being indifferent to child pornography.

The overblocking results from the technique used to block by IP address. One IP number may be in use for hundreds of legal sites, as well one illegal. While witnesses of the Attorney General stated
during the hearing that more targeted techniques are at hand, a representative of a big ISP said that more targeted URL-filtering would mean having to build their Net up from scratch, which was impossible for large networks.

"In general the higher the granularity of filtering mechanism and the bigger the filtering lists the more you will feel the consequences for the service level of the system," concluded an official study in Germany, where blocking of Nazi content by access providers led to a series of court cases last year.

International providers like MCI Worldcom would face a complicated management of different regional and national filtering lists in their networks. One blocking order served to MCI in Pennsylvania demanded the blocking of terra.es, the biggest hoster of Spain. No North American MCI customer would have been able to access hundreds of thousands of Spanish websites had not MCI notified terra management (which took down the incriminated website).

But other Pennsylvanian ISPs may still have blocked the terra-site, because there is no procedure for a checking what happened after an order. It is up to the ISP to redraw the blocking after content had changed, reads the Government's brief for the court hearing.

Anyway, different ISPs did not get the same blocking orders, says Davidson. Worldcom received only one formal court order after the company took a stand immediately after the introduction of the law in 2002 against the practice to comply with informal notices that were not signed by a judge. An AOL representative said the firm has received about 100 blocking requests. ®

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