The major national cable providers are all to sign a troubling yet major censorship deal with a private anti-child porn organization. The deal would give the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) carte blanche power to issue a takedown of any customer's content hosted on a cable provider's servers.
The group will provide each cable company with a list of Web site addresses that they believe contain child porn. The cable companies will then, per the agreement, scrub the content from their servers.
A press release describing the agreement states that:
The cable operators that have agreed to execute the (memo of understanding) within 30 days include: Comcast Corporation; Cox Communications; Charter Communications; Cablevision Systems Corporation...Time Warner Cable has already signed the MOU.
It is unclear what, if any, notification cable customers will receive before their Web sites are deleted, or what legal rights they will have to appeal the classification of their content as illegal child pornography.
The memo of understanding states that the private group will provide cable companies with a list of kiddie porn URLs, that "in NCMEC's good faith" appears to meet the federal definition of child pornography.
According to Cynthia Brumfield, the industry watcher who first broke the story:
"The identified URLs and content will be deleted (by the cable company) and the operator will provide NCMEC the customer's name and address in those instances where that information is available. NCMEC will then work with law enforcement authorities."
Thus, we have a private third-party group, who will be given the power to force the takedown of content, who will be given the names and addresses of the "violators." Is there anything else?
Oh yes--NCMEC wants its participation in the takedown to be kept secret. Brumfield cites the memo of understanding (which is not public)--which she said states that cable companies will:
"remove or limit the availability of apparent child pornography images or other content based on the List, and in taking such action replaces the offending page with a notice, such notice shall contain no reference to NCMEC."
I hope i am not the only one who is extremely troubled by this deal. Kiddie porn used to be one of the three major trump cards justifying censorship, invasion of privacy, and the general evisceration of civil liberties (the other two trump cards being illegal drugs and terrorism). However, with this deal and the recently successful child porn justified efforts of the NY AG to eradicate Usenet discussion groups, child porn seems to have outgrown its two fellow trump cards.
The threat of kiddie porn now seems to be capable of justifying any amount of censorship--something that no CEO accountable to his shareholders will dare stand up to.
This kind of takedown power should not be given to a private, unaccountable group. Both the FBI and DHS/US Customs already manage databases of enabling their agents to digitally fingerprint such content. As much as I dislike the FBI, they are at least (occasionally) held accountable. Journalists can submit Freedom Of Information Act requests, and the heads of the agency can be hauled in front of a congressional committee. NCMEC, on the other hand, is not subject to an FOIA request.
And so, I issue the following public challenge:
Comcast's anti-BitTorrent efforts were undone once the Associated Press was able to prove that the cable giant slowed down the file-sharing of a copy of the King James Bible.
Thus, I promise a bounty of 100 U.S. dollars to anyone who can somehow trick a cable company into taking down a copy of the King James Bible, under the mistaken belief that it's actually kiddie porn.
You may either work to trick the cable company directly, or instead go after the shadowy National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It is highly unlikely that cable companies will verify the URLs given to them by NCMEC, and so this may actually prove to be easier.
I am not encouraging anyone to break the law. I am sure this can be done with social engineering, and a bit of smarts. Finally, if you opt to donate your $100 award to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I will match it 100 percent.
Disclaimer: This challenge is made by a private individual, and does not reflect the policy of CNET.