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Less Internet, for the Sake of Children?

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 2008 Issue
October 8, 2008

Less Internet, for the Sake of Children?

You can always tell it is an election year when politicians get tough on crime and take action in the name of children. For the sake of “protecting our children” the Internet is getting slightly less useful. A seemingly minor change could have major repercussions.

Long before the World Wide Web, there were newsgroup servers. The most famous network of these text-based message forums was the USENET. To this day many hardcore computer programmers, hackers, and other “uber geeks” prefer the forums known as the Usenet newsgroups to exchange ideas and debate technical concepts.

In a July 21, 2008, letter to Internet Service Providers, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo accuses the ISPs of trafficking in child pornography by carrying the Usenet newsgroups. The two-page letter reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Usenet and of Internet technologies in general. Unfortunately, because most media companies are in New York, the ISPs had to make a tough choice: fight ignorance or surrender in the name of children.

My ISP discontinued access to the Usenet at the end of October. In fact, 18 ISPs are disconnecting from the Usenet as part of a “voluntary” agreement between the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), led by Cuomo, and the ISPs. Because nearly 90 percent of U.S. households connected to the Internet use these ISPs, this decision is profound.

Of the more than 10,000 newsgroups, only a few thousand are responsible for most activity. By the number of messages, technology groups are the most active. Unfortunately, including pictures and other files, the most Usenet reader traffic was generated by pirated software, music, and pornography. In other words, a lot of people were searching for illegal content, but most actual conversations were technical and probably useful.

Sure, during its prime in the 1980s there were silly newsgroups dedicated to soap operas, John Hughes films, and the obligatory Star Trek debates about which captain was best. But, over time only the technical and the “mature” remained somewhat popular. Some once popular newsgroups have died as technologies and television shows have faded. I can’t recall the last messages posted to alt.fan.tv.babylon5 or comp.systems.atari.

As access to the Usenet declines, I am sure the worst felons were already using other means to exchange files and information. Considering most college students admit to using file-sharing networks to pirate music, I’m certain that pornographers are doing the same.

Simply because a handful of Usenet users are misbehaving, a useful resource has been removed from my standard Internet access subscription.

While most of the households affected in the United States will not notice, this sort of action should concern every Internet user. If my ISP cared about piracy and porn, they could have blocked a handful of newsgroups.

This choice wasn’t about the children. By the logic of this decision, every e-mail server or chat application should be powered off in the name of protecting the children. The sad truth is that pornographers, pirates, and social miscreants of all manner will use any means available to break the law.

The Internet will always have some unsavory corners.

The e-mail I received from my ISP offered Usenet service for a “small fee” through another service. Honestly, paying another $10 to $20 a month is unacceptable. I suspect most other Usenet readers will feel the same way.

The technical crowd will migrate to Slashdot: News for Nerds (http://slashdot.org) and similar Web forums. Ars Technica: The Art of Technology (http://arstechnica.com) is also catering to former Usenet readers. While I appreciate these Web sites, it means a few Web servers are replacing what was a vast network of volunteer-operated newsgroup servers. If one newsgroup server closed, the same news was “repeated” on numerous others. If Slashdot or Ars Technica should ever shutdown, the archives and current content will simply vanish.

I doubt we needed 10,000 newsgroups. I’m sure there were also fewer readers of the active groups. But just because only a handful of self-professed “nerds” are inconvenienced doesn’t make what’s happening right.

Cuomo has suggested that ISPs should help locate potential distributors of illegal materials. I wonder if part of this assistance would include monitoring to see who pays for Usenet access. Cuomo’s letter promises to “narrowly” enforce a signed “Code of Conduct” among the ISPs, but I think it is absurd to hold ISPs responsible for the behavior of Internet users. Short of monitoring everything subscribers do online, you cannot stop illegal file sharing or pornography.

The fact that companies can be pressured to alter Internet services is stunning.

Because of the way Internet services have evolved, Valley residents have few options. Most of us are connected to the Internet via our cable provider or phone company. You cannot protest the policies of these companies by taking your business elsewhere. There is no elsewhere.

Consider me cynical, but these communications companies have not proved themselves to be concerned with personal privacy. Whether it is the White House, Albany, or Sacramento claiming a desire to protect the public, the ISPs have seemed eager to acquiesce to almost any demand.

Because so many of us rely on the Internet, we should voice our concerns to elected officials. We should also consider how tolerating less service now could result in even more changes in the future.
I can’t suggest any technology that will block all inappropriate Internet traffic. What I can suggest is that we start going after the people committing crimes instead of the technology.

We cannot blame Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, or Time Warner for what their cable and DSL customers might do. We don’t blame the phone company when thieves discuss a crime via traditional “landline” phones. We don’t blame Polaroid or Kodak for every offensive instant picture. If technology hasn’t been blamed in the past, what makes the Internet different?

I had one person tell me that the Usenet made it “too easy” to search for illegal content. My question was, “Why were you looking?”

It was to protect the children, of course.

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