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First Amendment
Pa. attorney general won't name Web sites banned under child porn law

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania's attorney general is citing laws against distributing child pornography in refusing to identify any of hundreds of Web sites his office has forced the nation's largest Internet providers to block under a unique state law.

The legal stand by Mike Fisher, a Republican, stymies efforts by a prominent civil liberties group to challenge an unorthodox strategy in Pennsylvania to stem online child pornography.

The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology had sought the list of sites to buttress its assertions that the Pennsylvania law blocks Web surfers visiting innocent sites located in the same electronic neighborhoods as those peddling illegal porn. Without the list of blocked sites, the group cannot find examples to support its claims.

Fisher's office said disclosing the list of blocked Web sites would itself be disseminating such pornography, which is illegal.

"The documents that you seek contain the Web addresses of Internet sites that contain such depictions," wrote L. Kinch Bowman, director of management services for the attorney general's office.

Bowman's letter to the civil liberties group, dated Tuesday, responded to a request under Pennsylvania's open records statute for information about the state's use of the pornography law.

The Associated Press made a duplicate request on the same day and received the same explanation this week.

"It's really amazing to say, 'If we told you what we can't tell you, it would be breaking the law.' It means there can never be any oversight of a provision like this," said Alan Davidson, the associate director for the civil liberties group.

Davidson said the group was considering an appeal under Pennsylvania's open records law or a lawsuit to compel the attorney general to disclose details about enforcement of the law.

Under the law, enacted last year, Fisher has so far instructed Internet providers with customers in the state to block subscribers from at least 423 Web sites around the world. The law is unusual because it could impose a $5,000 fine on companies providing Internet connections to Web sites with illegal photographs, but no fine on the pornography sites themselves.

Fisher says the law and his use of it is an effective way to prevent citizens from viewing child pornography.

Lawyers for the civil liberties group said the technique undermines the Internet's global connectivity by regularly blocking Web surfers visiting harmless sites that may be located on the same server computers as sites with child pornography. They have compared the tactic to disrupting mail delivery to an entire apartment complex over one tenant's illegal actions.

Fisher's office this week provided one sample of instructions sent in December to America Online, the nation's largest Internet provider, to remove or disable access to subscribers in Pennsylvania to a Web address that was redacted.

His office also identified Internet providers that have received such orders, which include Comcast Communications Inc., Earthlink Inc., Microsoft Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and others.

Only once has an Internet provider disputed Fisher's instructions. In that case, a county judge ordered WorldCom Inc. in September to comply. WorldCom's lawyers, while saying they abhor child pornography, had objected that filters placed on behalf of Pennsylvania citizens would affect all their subscribers in North America from visiting thousands of Web sites "completely unrelated in content and ownership" to the pornographic material.

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