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Usenet Under Siege

Interesting developments in the election year attempts by New York
State Attorney General Dennis Vacco to create legal liability for ISPs
over Usenet content, particularly alleged child porn.
Over the past few years, a number of national news providers, under
pressure from various self-declared "child advocates," have filtered
out articles from their feeds whose newsgroup names suggested that
depictions of the sexuality of minors were topical.
Given that Usenet routes around censorship, that a "newsgroup" is not
a tangible entity, but simply one line on a Usenet article which
attempts to roughly categorize it, and that the Usenet newsgroup
namespace is practically infinite, such attempts to curtail the topics
discussed in the worldwide real-time conversation that is Usenet have
been laughably unsuccessful.
While uncensored Usenet feeds are still the standard most customers
demand, this content-based pruning of the daily newsfeed by some ISPs
has provided the opportunity for some in law enforcement to
characterize uncensored news servers as some sort of outlaw minority.
Law enforcement is now trying to use such representations as a
pretense to erode the notion that ISPs should enjoy common carrier
status for content they do not originate.
It therefore came as no surprise when Dennis Vacco, the incumbent New
York Attorney General, and an individual who has built his reputation
with numerous publicity stunts revolving around sexual vices featuring
those under the legal age of majority, seized the news servers of
Dreamscape and Buffnet in a highly publicized raid, accompanied by
simultaneous press releases and Web pages, announcing that he had
broken up an "International Child Pornography Ring." 13 individuals in
several countries were also arrested on various possession,
trafficking, and promotion charges involving illegal erotica.
The fallacies in Vacco's spewage were innumerably large.  There was
the absurd idea that a running gag in one newsgroup involving a
mythical "Pedo University" indicated the existence of a "virtual
academic institution devoted to the sexual abuse of children." Vacco
also seemed to believe that individual Usenet newsgroups were owned
and operated by specific individuals, and that certain newgroups were
"providing services" to the aforementioned imaginary academic
In reality, no one owns or operates a Usenet newsgroup, and any
individual may post anything he likes to any newsgroup at any time,
either anonymously, or with identifying information attached.
Dennis Vacco's clueless attack on the global Usenet may in fact
backfire, as there is presently serious discussion over a possible
three day protest, in which all traffic destined for the groups
targetted by Vacco will be posted instead to alt.law-enforcement.
Vacco's plans to undermine claims of common carrier status for ISP's
can be found in his following statements.
     "Most Internet service providers choose not to carry
      news groups that cater to the interests of child porn
      traffickers for obvious reasons.
     "Those that do are well aware of their nature and
      purpose, possess the offensive images on their servers,
      and facilitate the transfer and trading of child
CNET News.com provides the following article by Paul Festa giving
further information on the attempts to criminally charge ISPs over
Usenet content, available on their web site.
ISPs may face charges over child porn
By Paul Festa
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
October 30, 1998, 5:35 p.m. PT
A few exerpts...
    As many as five Internet service providers may face
    serious legal charges for providing access to
    newsgroups used by child pornographers in cases that
    critics are calling election-eve politics.
    New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco won praise this
    week for his role in an international crackdown on an
    online child pornography ring. But critics have accused
    Vacco, up for reelection Tuesday, of breaking the law
    and playing politics in probing two New York state ISPs
    as part of the crackdown and seizing their newsgroup
    Three more ISPs--two on the West Coast and one in the
    Midwest--are likely to receive search warrants in
    coming weeks, the attorney general's office told CNET
    News.com today.
    Law enforcement officials have not arrested or charged
    anyone affiliated with the ISPs. But the businesses,
    which provided access to the newsgroups, are under
    investigation for what Vacco's office describes as the
    knowing possession of criminal images.
    "The servers were confiscated as part of ongoing
    investigation," said Marc Wurzel, spokesman for the
    attorney general. "The ISPs were in possession of
    illegal images of children engaged in sex acts. In both
    cases, they were forewarned that they were in
    possession of illegal images."
    The notification came in the form of an email inquiry
    sent by an undercover agent. The agent posed as a
    student wanting to know whether he would run afoul of
    the law by downloading child pornography he had found
    through the newsgroups.
    A third New York ISP, located in Albany, responded to
    the undercover inquiries by suspending the newsgroups.
    As a result, that ISP is not under investigation,
    Wurzel said.
    Coincidentally, Congress recently passed the Child
    Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act, which
    would make ISPs responsible for turning in their
    customers. Under that legislation, access providers who
    fail to report child pornography once they are made
    aware of it could be fined up to $50,000 for the first
    violation and up to $100,000 for each subsequent time
    they fail to contact law enforcement authorities.
    Vacco has pulled ahead in what only a few weeks ago
    was a tight race for reelection. In a New York
    Times-CBS poll taken in the first week of October,
    Republican Vacco and Democratic opponent Eliot Spitzer
    were statistically tied in their race for the state's
    top law enforcement spot. According to a Times-CBS poll
    released this week, Vacco is now ahead, 48 percent to
    36 percent, with 14 percent of the voters undecided.
Eric Michael Cordian 0+
O:.T:.O:. Mathematical Munitions Division
"Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law"