Three Internet service providers, Sprint Nextel, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, have agreed to block customer access to newsgroups and Web sites that offer child pornography. Although the agreement has yet to be implemented and is unlikely to be 100 percent effective, this looks like a promising way to deter the distribution of such material over the Internet.
The agreement is not without problems. It was negotiated under pressure with New York state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, so it could entail First Amendment problems. The First Amendment as enforced in the courts prohibits government agencies from engaging in censorship. Private companies can block access or refuse to permit certain kinds of expression to be passed along via their facilities; when private companies restrict what their facilities can be used for, they are exercising both their property rights and their freedom of choice. It is when government dictates what can and cannot be said or displayed that it becomes censorship.
The three companies will remove from their servers various Web sites and newsgroups identified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as trafficking in pornographic images involving children, especially young children. Understanding that purveyors of porn can shut down one site and start another fairly readily, the center promises to update the list continuously.
While promising, the approach could be problematic, too. In one Pennsylvania case, according to John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an attempt to block 400 illicit sites led to blocking more than 1 million unrelated sites. Blocking based on the use of certain terms has led in the past to blocking constructive sites that sought to help people avoid teen pregnancy or learn about sexually transmitted diseases.
In a freer society Internet service providers would be able to get together and agree to act consistently to block access to child porn and other objectionable material. In our current society, however, that cooperation might lead to unwelcome attention from antitrust regulators. In a way, then, having the agreement pushed on them by a state attorney general provides a way for the ISPs to do what they wanted to do anyway without being targeted by the feds on antitrust grounds.
No doubt this program will encounter glitches along the way. But this program is at least a good beginning on an approach that promises to be more effective than federal laws at restricting the distribution of child pornography.