September 23, 2002 12:46 PM PDT
WorldCom blocks access to child porn
Last week, a Pennsylvania judge, at the request of Attorney General Mike Fisher, ordered WorldCom, the bankrupt Internet and voice provider, to block access to five purported child pornography sites. Among those was a site hosted by Terra.es, Spain's largest Internet portal and a division of Terra Lycos.
Because it doesn't have the technical capability to stop residents of a particular state from viewing specific Web sites, WorldCom plans to block all of its North American subscribers from some of the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. Other sites were taken down over the weekend, including the pages hosted by Terra Lycos. As a result, WorldCom won't have to block North American access to all Terra.es sites.
"While WorldCom abhors child pornography and has long worked with law enforcement, we have concerns about the breadth of this decision," WorldCom spokeswoman Sudie Nolan said.
The case stems from a Pennsylvania law enacted earlier this year that says an ISP (Internet service provider) must block child porn sites "accessible through its service in a manner accessible to persons located within this commonwealth within five business days" after being notified by the attorney general.
If a company does not block such a site after being notified, it can be convicted of a misdemeanor and, after repeat violations, a felony.
A representative for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office said the state has worked out cooperative agreements with many ISPs but that WorldCom balked at its latest request.
WorldCom, however, said it was only complying with a legal procedure that requires law enforcement to get a court order before blocking access.
Usually, law enforcement works with the ISPs that host the disputed sites, but in this case, investigators decided to go after a company that allowed people to reach them. WorldCom did not host any of the sites.
WorldCom's action does not mean that all of the sites are no longer available on the Web--only that the company's customers can't view them. That potentially could affect millions of Internet users because WorldCom carried about 30 percent of U.S. Internet traffic last year.
No other state appears to have enacted such a sweeping law, and it has not been tested in court.
WorldCom had considered challenging the order but acquiesced in part because some of the alleged illegal pornography had been removed over the weekend, a source close to the company said Monday.
If WorldCom had chosen to challenge the order, it could have raised First Amendment arguments, saying that a ban on Terra.es was overly broad and violated American's rights to access legitimate content.
Crossing state lines
The case also raises questions about jurisdictional issues on the Web, or the extent to which one region can apply its laws to the Internet. A law such as Pennsylvania's allows the state to "sort of project its laws beyond its borders," Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien said.
This isn't the first time that Internet providers have fretted about being sued--or have been prosecuted for criminal violations.
Internet service providers got a first serious wake-up call on the issue nearly a decade ago, when the Church of Scientology sued then-prominent ISP Netcom for providing access to copyrighted Scientology documents. The suit was filed in 1995, before any of the ISP "safe harbors" laws had been passed, and Netcom ultimately settled. The incident helped spark many of the political discussions that came later.
ISPs lobbied to ensure that the 1996 Telecommunications Act said they would not be "treated as the publisher or speaker" of sexually explicit material that their subscribers distribute. In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act said ISPs "shall not be liable" for copyright violations as long as they act quickly to limit infringements when notified.
ISPs got a bad scare in 1999, when the House voted on the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which didn't receive the two-thirds majority necessary under a special voting procedure used for that bill. The proposal, backed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would have required Internet providers to "disable access" to offshore gambling sites after being contacted by police.
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