Update: This story was updated at 2:55 p.m. PDT to add comments from AT&T.
California's governor and attorney general are asking Internet service providers to help stop the dissemination of child pornography.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued a press release Friday asking Internet service providers in California to follow the lead of Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint in "removing child pornography from existing servers and blocking channels" that disseminate the illegal material.
"Protecting the safety of our children must be a top priority, not just for government, but also for businesses with the direct power to reduce the ability to conduct illegal activity," they said in a joint letter to the California Internet Service Provider Association.
Earlier this month, Verizon, Time Warner, and Sprint announced an agreement with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to purge their servers of existing child pornography and eliminate access to user groups that distribute child pornography.
Schwarzenegger and Brown said in their letter that it's important that ISPs in California take action that is similar to the steps Verizon, Time Warner, and Sprint have agreed to in New York. The Internet Service Provider Association is the largest association of Internet service providers in the country, representing more than 100 ISPs. These providers include small ISPs, as well as big ones such as AT&T and AOL.
"It is not enough for only a few Internet service providers to join the fight against online predators," the letter said. "Child pornography is not protected by the First Amendment, and distributing this material is illegal."
While no one disagrees that distributing child pornography is illegal, some civil liberty experts worry that the way in which ISPs will block access to it could limit free speech for people discussing and distributing perfectly legal content.
Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint have said they have no plans to actually block access to any Web sites. Instead, they plan to purge or erase any child pornography that has been cached in their servers. They also plan to limit or block access to some of their own Usenet or news groups, which can be used to disseminate this material.
For example, Time Warner Cable said it will cease to offer customers access to any Usenet newsgroups, a decision that will affect customers nationwide. Sprint said it would no longer offer any of the tens of thousands of alt.* Usenet newsgroups. Verizon's plan is to eliminate some "fairly broad newsgroup areas."
My colleague Declan McCullagh points out in a story he wrote following the New York announcement that this tactic will most likely silence thousands of legitimate user groups that use the alt.* hierarchy for Usenet discussions.
It's not surprising that the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to this action. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program, told CNET News.com in McCullagh's earlier article that service providers shouldn't be blocking wholesale sections of the Internet, including Usenet groups, because it could eliminate legitimate discussions. "That's taking a sledgehammer to an ant," he was quoted as saying.
Indeed, this could turn out to be a big issue as California's politicians try to push for similar action among other Internet service providers. Some large providers such as AOL stopped carrying Usenet, but AT&T still does.
AT&T said that it is already working to fight online child pornography. "AT&T has long-standing and established procedures for the removal of illegal child pornography from our servers, including servers that host newsgroups," said Marty Richter, a representative for AT&T. "Consistent with these procedures and federal and state statutes, when we receive a report of any illegal content being hosted on our servers and we have a good faith basis for concluding that the content is illegal, we will remove it."