Responsibility, ISPs and child pornography

June 10, 2008

Thanks to search engines and ISPs, you’re only a couple of words and a click away from the unbearably grim world of child pornography.

Unless you’re a 60s rock star engaging in research, there really is no good reason for you to go exploring these dark digital alleyways. And ISPs agree. It’s your fault if you go looking. Individual responsibility is key. Child Pornography? Society’s problem say ISPs, not ours.

Besides, in the UK, ISPs are rather more interested in partnering with the record industry to campaignVirgin Media against music sharing, than in partnering with the police to prevent the circulation of less easily monetised but more hellish content – like videos of mercilessly exploited children.

After all, they didn’t make the stuff. They just delivered it.

So does online responsibility for content begin and end with the individual?

The ISPs’ argument for non-action may well be about to get its first major knock. The New York Times reports a ground-breaking enforcement action by the office of Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general:

“The I.S.P.s’ point had been, ‘We’re not responsible, these are individuals communicating with individuals, we’re not responsible,'” he said, referring to Internet service providers. “Our point was that at some point, you do bear responsibility.”

Let’s see if someone in the UK is willing to challenge them.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

nigel barlow June 10, 2008 at 16:39

It’s a difficult one to police. However if you start with the assumption that the ISP is simply an electronic version of the “old fashioned publisher” then as with a publisher, that is where the responsibilty at least begins. As you say “we don’t publish the stuff we just deliver it.”
Then again isn’t art just a mimic of life, and this form of art appears to satisfy a need even though to respectable society the need is an abomination.


Adrian Monck June 10, 2008 at 17:30

I think we need to be clear. We’re talking about abuse.

It doesn’t merit a mention in Virgin Media’s statement on Corporate Social Responsibility. Although if someone from the company wants to get in touch to explain how allowing people to access such material equates to the goal of “ensuring our products are ethical and safe” – I’d love to hear from them.


Russ June 11, 2008 at 11:12

Again, I would caution about how we characterise the functional nature of what ISPs do. We don’t hold window manufacturers responsible for the ugly things we see on the street. ISPs just typically give their customers unfettered access to the internet via an electronic connection. Most ISPs do not even have their own browsers — they rely on off-the-shelf browsers like IE or Mozilla. Many of them make available best-in-class filters and have created other safe places for children to surf in.

Accordingly, I think the language you employ to describe what ISPs do is played up. ISPs do not deliver abuse images to people. A typical ISP allows the user to set a home page or if not the default page is the ISP’s start page. What internet content you are exposed to thereafter depends on what you search for — the ISP merely enables the search to take place over the big pipe it uses to connect you to the vast internet. Holding an ISP responsible for what a third party posts somewhere in that vast domain is quite a stretch in legal terms. I would agree, however, that if the ISP hosts the content (maybe via a user’s home page), it should take it down promptly upon receiving notice.

My ISP (Talk Talk) simply has a contract with me that connects me to a BT exchange and from there to the internet. They promise a throughput speed and have policies about amount of use, etc. It’s all data to them — it all looks the same… a GB of video for Star Wars is the same as a GB of video that is illegal. They don’t really have the means by which to detect the difference — at least at the price they charge me. The only content Talk Talk provides to me is a special page where I can self-diagnose technical problems. If you held Talk Talk legally responsible for my actions or others’ actions, the price would increase substantially.

In any case, police should demonstrate they are doing all they can do to locate and punish the actual abusers. I wager I could find numerous examples of where the New York state and municipal governments have mis-managed or ignored actual abuse cases where they had the wrong-doer right in front of them.

Going after ISPs seems like gesture politics at its finest.

ISPs are notorious for bending to pressure, however, so I think you will probably see some changes in the way they conduct business. The problem could be that — in order to avoid legal liability — the ISPs will screen out more content than is necessary to comply with the law. That’s always the nature of legal compliance.

Anyway — an interesting topic…!


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