Comcast resists pressure to drop Usenet access

by on July 21, 2008 · 10 comments

Facing threats of legal action from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, many ISPs have curbed newsgroup access in the name of fighting child porn. Now, it looks like a big fish is holding out: Comcast.

Good for them. While it’s understandable that other ISPs elected to fold under intense pressure from an overzealous AG with a powerful bully pulpit, Comcast is entirely justified in standing its ground.

It’s not the responsibility of network providers to police their servers for potentially illegal files, as the Communications Decency Act makes clear. The only legal obligation of an ISP is to remove illegal content upon gaining knowledge of its existence on their network. But that hasn’t stopped Cuomo from sending a harsh letter to Comcast threatening to pursue “legal remedies to stop child pornography” if the cable giant doesn’t comply with his terms.

Cuomo wants ISPs to go far beyond merely removing illegal content as it’s discovered. The “voluntary agreement” that New York is pushing on ISPs has already resulted in many providers dropping newsgroup access completely, causing millions of subscribers to lose access to Usenet. Even among users who haven’t been completely cut off from newsgroups, the popular alt.* hierarchy has been disabled, making it nearly impossible to acquire anything larger than text files. The worst part is that the “bad guys” are unaffected by the crackdown on child porn—third-party Usenet servers with uncensored newsgroup access are a dime a dozen these days.

A legal battle with Cuomo might not be cheap, but it’d be worth fighting nevertheless. As I pointed out last month, suppressing speech through so-called “voluntary agreements” likely runs afoul of the First Amendment, and ISPs enjoy immunity under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Communications Decency Act.

Like his notorious predecessor, Andrew Cuomo seems bent on building his image as a crime-fighter through meaningless publicity stunts, even if it means extorting legitimate businesses to the detriment of consumers.

Let’s hope Comcast forces Cuomo to put his money where his mouth is—the future of free speech online may hang in the balance.

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