Pennsylvania Law Fights Objectionable Material with Blacklists

Pennsylvania enacted a law last year that would force ISPs to block certain Web sites, servers, networks and services that provide access to child pornography. By eliminating the demand, Pennsylvania legislators hope to affect the publishers of such material. Unfortunately, the law is based on a fundamentally flawed technological premis.

Because the US has strict laws against the publishing of such material, most child pornography sites are hosted overseas. Since the legislators and courts cannot go after the source, they have decided to try to cut it off. In this way, they hope to make child pornography on the Web financially inviable.

Many organizations have spoken out about the constitutionality of such a law, one that allows the government to maintain a blacklist without court oversight. However, there is an even more fundamental problem. The technology is a dud. It simply won't work.

The blacklist contains the numeric addresses of Web sites which publish child pornography. It takes only a minute to move a Web site from one numeric address to another. This means that the publishers can move their content to another address faster than the government can find it and distribute a new blacklist.

Second, each numeric address can actually be the source of hundreds to thousands of Web sites. In other words, a site publishing child pornography can have the same numeric address as a Web site for a hotel, a news site, or even a government Web site. Once the offending Web site moves, the legitimate Web sites will still be blocked.

Though many of the "established" sites are hosted overseas, many are also hosted for short periods of time on various discount hosting services. Cheap hosts with thousands of customers and autmated account setups are the perfect target for such publishers. The publishers prey on the fact that no human at the hosting company will ever review the content of the Web site, that no one will find the site for days, weeks or months.

As a result, this law could actually stack the cards in favor of small to medium sized, regional ISPs. We talk to each customer who sets up an account. We routinely review the Web sites hosted on our servers for various reasons. A human reviews and responds to every complaint we receive. As such, it is unlikely that such content could ever find its way onto our servers or remain there for long.

It's also worth pointing out that piggybacking multiple Web sites onto a single numeric address can cause many other problems. For instance, some search engines can't see a site if it shares a numeric address with another site. Consequently, we've gone out of our way to ensure that each Web site we host has its own numeric address. As such, even if one Web site got blocked for whatever reason (e.g. publishing objectobjectionablent, sending unsolicited e-mail, etc.) no other site on our service should be affected.

Finally, because of our regional focus, we have only a small number of states whose laws directly affect us. As such laws become more popular, the national ISPs will be forced to implement more and more expensive systems to address increasing complex (and often contradictory) state laws. Regional ISPs will be relatively enncumunencumberedis.

Despite whatever peripheral advantage this law may give to small to medium sized ISPs, it's simply not a solution to the child pornography problem. This is true if no other reason than the fact that the blacklists can be circumvented. There are many services which allow you to surf the Internet anonymously. These services render blacklists useless.

Given this and the other problems address above, the blacklists will almost certainly cause more harm than good. Worse, they may give people the false sense of security, the sense that something is being done to combat the problem. Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth.

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