Internet Providers Fight Child Abuse

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES — The nation's cable television operators, reportedly responsible for providing online services to 87 percent of U.S. homes, have entered into a voluntary agreement to take measures to limit the distribution of child pornography on the Internet.

According to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), represents more than 112 million U.S. households that are now being protected from receiving child pornography.

"Building on our strong commitment to online safety, the cable industry wants to help combat child pornography and exploitation," Kyle McSlarrow, NCTA President and CEO, said. "By signing the NCMEC MOU, cable Internet service providers are reaffirming their strong commitment to online safety and Internet literacy for all American families."

"We are deeply grateful for this industry-wide attack on child pornography," NCMEC President and CEO, Ernie Allen, said. "It is not possible to arrest and prosecute every offender. We must be creative and build new public-private partnerships to address this insidious problem more effectively. Today's announcement represents a bold step forward."

"Although NCMEC has recently signed similar agreements with individual companies, this agreement is notable as the first such agreement NCMEC has reached with an entire sector of the nation's communications industry," Rhode Island Attorney General and NAAG President Patrick C. Lynch, wrote on behalf of NAAG and the 45 Attorneys General who have signed a letter in support of the NCTA-NCMEC MOU, "The NCTA agreement with NCMEC will limit the ability of predators to store and exchange images of exploitation of those who are, by definition, among the more vulnerable in society. We congratulate the cable industry for taking a strong stand in support of child safety."

According to the NCTA, its member cable companies have agreed to use NCMEC's list of active websites identified as containing child pornography, "to ensure that no such site is hosted on servers owned or controlled by those companies." The agreement also calls for offending websites to be reported to NCMEC's CyberTipline and corporate policies updated to combat other potential sources of child pornography, such as newsgroups.

"The Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) sends its Red Flag Reports of child pornography websites to NCMEC," ASACP CEO Joan Irvine told XBIZ. "So many of the confirmed CP sites that we report will now be blocked."

ASACP also works with NCMEC on the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography, with ASACP CTO Tim Henning serving on the Technology Challenges Committee.

"The agreement with NCMEC will provide cable broadband service providers with an invaluable source of information to help them enforce their terms of service, all of which forbid the hosting of such illegal materials on their servers," an NCTA release stated.

While the cable companies are not filtering access, but enforcing their acceptable use policies which forbid the hosting of illegal content, free speech and privacy advocates may see a danger in that distinction and thus fear heavy-handed and overbroad (but impractical) measures; such as "cutting off" user access to Internet newsgroups — or of legal adult and other "objectionable" websites.

Indeed, while it appears that even port-blocking of access to Usenet will not stop surfers from reaching the groups and that encryption protocols and proxy servers will allow any user to gain access to any website, Internet service providers are struggling to find solutions — both domestically and abroad — to regulating the content that traverses their networks.

For example, despite recent industry initiatives, it is estimated that more than a million U.K. households have access to known child sex abuse websites; even though a two-year-old government pledge promised to end such access.

These customers are able to access the illegal websites because their ISPs refused to be involved with an Internet Watch Foundation program to bar known pedophile websites by using a daily updated black list of 800-1,200 active child-abuse websites.

The plan is an approach that is very similar to the new U.S. program.