Time Warner, Verizon, and Sprint will restrict access to tens of thousands of Newsgroups in order to stem illegal child pornography as part of an agreement with New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday. Although ISPs have no obligation to provide newsgroup access, and there are plenty of alternative methods for users to browse Usenet discussion groups, the agreement raises serious Constitutional questions.
The agreement is supposedly “voluntary,” but this doesn’t necessarily resolve all First Amendment concerns. Hans Bader, CEI’s Counsel for Special Projects, posted a good overview on the Constitutional implications of the New York announcement over at OpenMarket.org:
“In truth, the settlement blocking access to newsgroups is not really “voluntary.” It’s the coercive result of threats of litigation from the New York Attorney General’s office. Supposedly “voluntary” settlements can constitute government regulation that violates the constitution. The Supreme Court has said that even a State’s “contractual condition” is subject to constitutional scrutiny (See South-Central Timber Dev. Co. v. Wunnicke, 467 U.S. 87, 97 n.10 (1984)), and federal appeals courts have observed that the fact that a state official and a business “have entered into an agreement does not necessarily insulate it from scrutiny under” the Constitution. (See Automated Salvage Transport, Inc. v. Wheelabrator Ent’l Sys. Inc., 155 F.3d 59, 78 (2d Cir. 1998)). And a “voluntary agreement” incorporated into a consent decree can constitute state regulation that is preempted by federal law, as the Supreme Court observed in 1981. (Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46, 47, 53 (1981)).
This isn’t the first time Andrew Cuomo has pressured firms to engage in online censorship. Back in October 2007, I discussed how Facebook “voluntarily” agreed to censor user content to reduce the chances that minors would encounter obscene images.
Mr. Cuomo seems awfully effective at persuading providers to curtail user speech–perhaps he made an offer the ISPs couldn’t refuse.