The companies have agreed to shut down access to newsgroups that traffic in pornographic images of children on one of the oldest outposts of the Internet, known as Usenet. Usenet began nearly 30 years ago and was one of the earliest ways to swap information online, but as the World Wide Web blossomed, Usenet was largely supplanted by it, becoming a favored back alley for those who traffic in illicit material.
The service providers' move come in the wake of a sting operation launched by the New York Attorney General's office.
When agents posing as customers complained they could see child porn, the service providers ignored them, provoking a warning from the Attorney General's office they could be charged with fraud and deceptive business practices.
For those ISPs undertake to discourage child porn in their customer service agreements. Verizon, for example, warns its users that they risk losing their service if they transmit or disseminate sexually exploitative images of children.
Verizon and Time Warner Cable are two of the nation's five largest service providers, with roughly 16 million customers between them, New York Times reports.
"You can't help but look at this material and not be disturbed," said Attorney General Mark Cuomo, who promised to take up the issue during his 2006 campaign. "These are 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, assault victims, there are animals in the pictures," he added. "To say 'graphic' and 'egregious' doesn't capture it."
"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."
Internet service providers represent a relatively new front in the battle against child pornography, one spearheaded in large part by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Federal law requires service providers to report child pornography to the National Center, but it often takes customer complaints to trigger a report, and few visitors to illicit newsgroups could be expected to complain because many are pedophiles themselves.
Last year, a bill sponsored by Congressman Nick Lampson, a Texas Democrat, promised to take "the battle of child pornography to Internet service providers" by ratcheting up penalties for failing to report complaints of child pornography. The bill passed in the House, but has languished in the Senate.
Ernie Allen, the president and chief executive officer of National Center for Missing and Exploited Children the center, said in a statement, "This is a major step forward in the fight against child pornography, Attorney General Cuomo has developed a new and effective system that cuts online child porn off at the source, and stops it from spreading across the Internet."
The dangers are very real. It was reported Tuesday that seven ninth grade boys were suspended from their school in New Jersey for distributing racy photos of middle school girls on cell phones and school-issued laptops.
More than 20 girls who are now in ninth grade were in the photos. Some pictures appeared to have been taken two or three years ago. The girls were seen from the waist up in various states of undress, typically with bare breasts.
A student who saw the photos on a laptop told a teacher and the administration called Hillsdale police.
One considerable tool that has been assembled as part of the New York investigation is a library of more than 11,000 pornographic images. Because the same images are often distributed around the Web or from newsgroup to newsgroup, once investigators catalog an image, they can use a digital identifier called a "hash value" to scan for it anywhere else using it as a homing beacon of sorts to find other pornographic sites.
"No one is saying you're supposed to be the policemen on the Internet, but there has to be a paradigm where you cooperate with law enforcement, or if you have notice of a potentially criminal act, we deem you responsible to an extent," Cuomo said. "This literally threatens our children, and there can be no higher priority than keeping our children safe."
Only last week 50-year-old Paul Little, a California movie producer, and his company, Maxworld Entertainment were convicted of five counts each of distributing obscene materials over the Internet and through the mail. Each count carries a possible maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
While defendants of freedom of speech are worried whether this represents a new illiberal trend in the country, those out to curb mindless porn are unrepentant. Like the U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Edward McAndrew in the Little case. He declared, "Political speech is entitled to the highest protection under the First Amendment," he said. "Obscenity is entitled to none. They are not the same thing."