Idiots in Charge in our Government

My friend, Scott Leffler, will agree with that statement, I’m sure. Let me explain why I’m mad and why I make that statement.

All over the news today has been New York State Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, who made a special trip to Buffalo to announce what he’s been doing to curb child pornography and while he was at it, take time to take a cheap shot at one of the few locally-run technology companies we have, Localnet.

First of all, let me say, I don’t support child pornography, or any form of pornography, in any way. No one is, or at least will admit in public that they are. That’s one of the techniques politicians use to gain support for their personal agenda, though. They take a sacred cow, like child porn, or breast cancer, and use it as a cloak to wrap their real purposes in and get a knee-jerk response in their favor from the majority of the people who don’t take the time to really look at what they are doing.

This is yet another case of our elected officials taking legal or legislative action in an area they are clearly not qualified to even understand, much less be responsible for. Remember Ted Stevens, the Alaska Senator, who revealed his stupidity by trying to explain the internet as a “series of tubes.” Check the news and see where he is today – under indictment

But in New York, they are trying to stop child porn by, not going after either the makers of it, or the consumers of it, but the internet providers we all use. They are bullying them into voluntarily signing a “code of conduct” where they agree to take certain steps to block this content. Unfortunately, the government’s simplistic understanding of the issue, coupled with laziness in actually going after the real criminals (who, let’s face it, are often overseas, out of their reach.) or prosecuting the receivers of this material, which would be an endless and tedious job.

No, they’d rather bully private companies into violating your privacy, and closing services off completely, than clean them up.

Cuomo publicly criticized and threatened to sue a locally-owned internet service provider, Localnet, for not jumping on the bandwagon and joining this voluntary agreement, even though Localnet – as do almost all ISPs – prohibits such content on their services and is certain they are not responsible for any child porn being available.

I’m not an expert, by any means, but it’s clear I know more about the internet than our government does. From the explanations I’ve read in the media, they are talking about both web sites and newsgroups, two entirely different things that operate very differently and should be dealt with in different ways.

You are probably familiar with a web site. You are looking at one right now. You can find them with Google, if you don’t know the one you are looking for. They are easy to block by content and easy to get taken down if they contain offensive material. While the ISPs in the agreement do provide web site hosting, usually a small space allowed with each account that many people never use, they are not primarily in the Web Site Hosting business. They are service providers and they mostly provide a connection to the internet, more than they do hosting on it.

As I said, it’s easy to get a offending web site taken down. Usually just a email, letter, or phone call to the hosting provider to point out the illegal content is plenty. Coming from an Attorney General would cinch that deal, even in a foreign country.

Blocking them is even easier. If you don’t want porn on you computer, just change your DNS settings to Open DNS. They’ll tell you how to use their service and how to block offensive sites from your network. If you think that’s too technical, their web site will guide you through it for almost any computer connection.

The real source of the child porn and the real serious way it is spread, though, isn’t web sites. It’s newsgroups. Many home computer users don’t even know what newsgroups are, much less use them. This makes it easy to make them a scapegoat and shut them down.

So what are internet newsgroups then? Newsgroups are older than the World Wide Web, starting out on university and research mainframes as a way to share information by categories. Wikipedia explains:

A newsgroup is a repository usually within the Usenet system, for messages posted from many users at different locations. The term is somewhat confusing, because it is usually a discussion group. Newsgroups are technically distinct from, but functionally similar to, discussion forums on the World Wide Web. Newsreader software is used to read newsgroups.

Usenet newsgroups cover a lot of ground, most of it totally legal and often very helpful or educational. They were originally intended for text only, but clever computer geeks figured out ways to send binary files by converting them into text and back again at the user end. Today, this is done so automatically, most people don’t even realize it is being done.

I’ve used newsgroups for a number of topics and they are a valuable resource for information and discussion of any topic. Their strength is that they are organized by subject areas, so that if you want to find information on say, your pet hamster, you might find a group called alt.animals.pets.hamster where other hamster lovers exchange information. (I’m making the topic up. I don’t know if a hamster newgroup even exists, but the example is typical.)

I’ve used newsgroups to find information about scanners, Ham Radio, computer problems and other topics. I have seen pornography newsgroups and can confirm that they do exist, but they’re not my cup of tea. There is a newsgroup for virtually any subject you can think of…

Another thing most people don’t realize is HOW newsgroups work. They are not a site like a web page. They are a distribution system. The messages in the system are passed from Usenet server to server. The idea is, that you don’t need to be connected to a far-away server to get certain information, you can find it on your local server, once it reaches it. It’s one of those system that works because a bunch of places on the internet agree to pass these messages along to each other and to in return, accept ones originated by each other’s users. It’s a decentralized communications system that operates collectively. When it was started, reliable, instant connections weren’t guaranteed or even comonplace except at major sites like universities. They passed along the postings, en-masse when they could and made them available locally. Wherever you were, though, your closest Usenet server would have the same postings within a short time.

You also have to realize that the academic base that formed Usenet was also very apolitical and believed in free speech. The approved almost any category for topics as newsgroups. That tradition has continued, right or wrong, up to today. The posting user was responsible for the content and if you don’t like it, you aren’t obligated to read it. (Remember, it’s a text-based system.)

HERE’S WHERE I EXPLAIN WHY I’M MAD

First of all, my ISP (Verizon) joined the agreement and took the easy way out. Instead of dropping certain newsgroups, the dropped them all, except for a few, very Verizon-specific ones. If I now need to read a certain newsgroup, any newsgroup, I must join, and pay for, a third-party Usenet service. Yes, there are companies who specialize in providing just that. Many smaller ISPs don’t provide their own local Usenet archives, but contract it out to companies like that. This has resulted in what is, in effect, an additional cost for the same level of service I had been paying for. Verizon gets to was their hands of the issue and look like they are doing something to prevent child porn, when in actuality, what they are doing is nothing! They are doing less…

Secondly, this is no way to stop the problem. Do they shut down the telephone company to stop phone sex? If a pervert calls on the telephone and says weird things to whoever answers, adult or minor, would they police rip out YOUR phone?

Well, that’s what Cuomo and the ISPs who are going along with him are doing. To punish the minority of people who spread or consume child porn, they are taking away a valuable service from all of us, whether we are guilty or not.

If they succeed in getting child porn off Usenet, it will just go elsewhere. Any peer-to-peer technique can be used to pass almost any kind of file.

The internet doesn’t care – it’s just a way of passing along patterns of electrons. It doesn’t concern itself with the meaning of the patterns anymore than the telephone understands what you are saying.

Now about Localnet…

I was a Localnet customer for several years. I had used many different ISPs back when I used dial-up connections and they were not only the most affordable service available, but the most reliable and professionally run. If I hadn’t gone broadband, I’d still use them.

No, they are not a Verizon, or an AOL. They are a much smaller company, but many other small ISPs have come and gone. They manage to survive because they are well-run and provide a economic alternative to expensive broadband.

I don’t recall Localnet’s Usenet arrangement. I’m not sure, but I think it was contracted out to a third party. If that’s the case, they really don’t – can’t – host any Usenet content, legal or illegal, on their equipment… Even if they do, I’m sure they would be happy to drop the newsgroups that carry the offensive material.

I just don’t get the whole thing. Cuomo and his people are clearly not up to prosecuting the actual porn creators. Heck, half of them are in Russia… read the Buffalo News series on it. It’s virtually impossible to stop through legal means. Only economic and cultural reform will ever stop it.

And prosecuting the end consumer of child porn is a daunting task too. The same ISPs that sign on to this agreement are reluctant to give personal information on their customers without a warrant. Arresting another school teacher or local politician for child porn is only a drop in the bucket and not cost effective either.

I don’t have the answer, but clearly, it’s beyond the realm of the political machine that doesn’t even understand the workings of teh internets [sic] Instead of badgering tech businesses like Localnet, they should be working with them to solve the problem.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder if the real purpose behind this whole business isn’t a broader attack on our privacy and freedom of speech. Is the movie and industry behind it and using the sacred cow of child porn to put into place measures that can be used to go after those who share music or movies over the internet? What’s next to come under their scrutiny after that? Your political views?

Posted in Rants, Tech Stuff, WNY

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