Three of the nation's largest Internet service providers agreed Tuesday to block access to child pornography.
Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable have voluntarily agreed to close off access to Web sites and newsgroups nationwide that have been shown to contain illicit photos. The companies had resisted such a move, arguing that it was too hard to police content on the Internet, but relented after a months-long child pornography investigation by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo called it an unprecedented way to fight child pornography.
"If you are just going to prosecute the users of the material, you can be doing that all day, every day for the rest of your life," he said Tuesday. "You have to get to the supplier, you have to get to the faucet, you have to get to the spigot if you want to make a dramatic difference quickly, and that's what we're doing."
Cuomo has made fighting child porn something of a crusade in the New York attorney general's office. Last year, he got MySpace and Facebook to tighten privacy controls for young people on their social networking sites. Then he found a way to track specific child porn images across the Internet. Tuesday's deal came about after Cuomo's investigators posed as clients of the three ISPs and complained about finding child pornography online.
Representatives from Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner say they did nothing wrong. Jeff Zimmerman, a senior vice president and chief ethics officer for Time Warner Cable, says as soon as company officials were alerted to the problem, they took steps to try to stop the activity.
"Unfortunately, those who traffic in this content are savvy, they are determined, and it isn't easy for any of us to completely prevent their illegal activities," Zimmerman says.
The three ISPs have agreed to improve their complaint system for child porn, and in Time Warner's case, do away with access to all newsgroups, even those that had posted nothing illegal.
That concerns some civil liberties organizations, says John Morris, a lawyer with the Center for Democracy and Technology, which monitors censorship by ISPs.
"How the ISPs go about blocking access is going to be a very serious concern, because the last time they tried to do this, there was a huge amount of overblocking," Morris says.
In 2002, Pennsylvania passed a law to try to stop child porn, but the law was ruled unconstitutional in 2004 after it blocked more than a million Web sites that were not engaged in the activity.
Morris doesn't think Tuesday's agreement is going to have much effect on the child porn problem. He says most people who traffic in illegal images know how to cover their tracks and get around blocks.