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New York talks net giants into child pornography crackdown

Time Warner torches newsgroups

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After discussions with the New York Attorney General's office, three big-name American ISPs - Time Warner Cable, Sprint, and Verizon - have agreed to a sweeping crackdown on child pornography.

This morning, New York AG Andrew Cuomo announced that the trio will sever access to child pornography newsgroups, remove child pornography websites from their servers, and contribute more than $1.1m to ongoing investigations.

"The pervasiveness of child pornography on the internet is horrific and it needs to be stopped," reads a statement from Cuomo. "We are attacking this problem by working with internet service providers to ensure they do not play host to this immoral business. 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."

With an investigation that dates back at least six months, Cuomo's office uncovered 88 internet newsgroups containing more than 11,000 "sexually lewd photos featuring prepubescent children". And it found that Time Warner, Sprint, and Verizon provided access to many of these online bulletin boards.

The three net providers have now agreed to eliminate this access, and Time Warner has shut off all its newsgroups.

But newsgroups are only a small part of the problem, and the trio has also promised to tackle web-based child pornography. Each will make it easier for customers to alert them to exploitive sites. "We've rolled out an enhanced reporting procedure to make sure complaints always receive the attention the deserve," Time Warner spokesman Alex Dudley told us. And each will purge their servers of material identified by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Hashing it out

Verizon - though not Time Warner or Sprint - has a pre-existing relationship with NCMEC. "We've had an agreement with NCMEC for the past several months," Dudley told us. "We've been working with them to remove material they find exploitive, and we will continue to do that."

NCMEC has similar agreements with AOL, Facebook, and GoDaddy. At the moment, the organization provides such partners with a list of URLs known to contain child pornography. But it's also developing a database capable of tracking individual images.

"We're working on a hash-based system that identifies the worst of the worst: the most egregious images that exploit the youngest of kids," NCMEC chief executive officer Ernie Allen told us.

Of the $1.125m pledged by Time Warner, Sprint, and Verizon, some will go to NCMEC, and some will fund additional investigation by the New York Attorney General.

NCMEC's Ernie Allen hailed Cuomo's announcement as a major milestone. "This is a very important step forward," he said. "This kind of approach - that involves companies that play such a key role on the internet - makes the most sense. As the Attorney General has said, there's so much of this stuff flowing into the internet bucket. You could try to keep emptying bucket. But the best thing to do is to turn it off at the tap. And that's what what this is trying to do."

Be like Britain

Similar efforts are well underway in others parts of the world, and Allen acknowledges that the US has some catching up to do. "Our hope," he said, "is that we can replicate what the British have done and what the Scandinavians have done."

In the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation offers its own child pornography blacklists, and it's already backed by a Who's Who of net outfits, thanks in part to government intervention. All ISPs have been ordered to adopt the blacklists by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, we've seen similar government crackdowns in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, and now France. Today, the French government ordered ISPs to block access to child pornography as well as content involving terrorism and racial hatred.

The trouble, says Sarah Robertson, a spokeswoman for Internet Watch Foundation, is that nearly 80 per cent of the world's commercial child porn is hosted on US servers. And only a handful of outfits have signed on with NCMEC.

But Andrew Cuomo hopes to change that. With this morning's announcement, he made a point of saying his investigation is far from over. ®

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