Top ISPs carry kiddie porn links

DAVID LE PAGE, Johannesburg | Friday

THE country’s largest providers of Internet services to home dial-up subscribers, M-Web, World Online and SAIX, are carrying links to child pornography websites on their servers.

The links are part of the Usenet service, an Internet-wide system of virtual bulletin boards on which subscribers can place and respond to messages. Users access Usenet on their own Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) servers, which in turn “mirror” and update Usenet content on thousands of servers around the world.

There are around 23 000 Usenet newsgroups, and their names do not always clearly reflect their contents, which makes it impossible for ISPs to eliminate completely the possibility of such pornography sneaking through.

However, service providers can choose which newsgroups they carry and which they don’t. This gives them more control over newsgroups than they have over where users choose to venture on the Web, and what they send and receive through e-mail.
Constant maintenance would be required, however, because new newsgroups can be accepted automatically.

M-Web carries at least 12 newsgroups clearly marked as being devoted to paedophilia. There are eight on World Online’s Icon servers. World Online, however, protest that their Usenet service is fed to them by SAIX, the Telkom ISP.

SAIX’s comment is that “the choice of which information a subscriber accesses on the Internet is a personal one”. It said it will remove such content only on receiving complaints.

The Internet Solution (IS), which serves corporate clients, said it only removes these newsgroups if the images in them are taking up too much space on their servers. “It’s unfortunate, but we can’t play a censorship role for legal reasons,” said Heather Stuart of IS.

But finding the relevant newsgroups is not difficult. In half an hour’s surfing, the Mail & Guardian discovered an M-Web newsgroup link going straight to a Web page carrying images of obviously pre-pubescent girls, nude and posing provocatively.

This and similar links appeared amid references to “very, very young boys”, “schoolboys play with each other” and “little boys get fucked”. Among these references were links to pictures of boys with erections. The boys appeared to be between between 12 and 17 years old.

In response, M-Web points to its training of detectives from the Western Cape Child Protection Unit. It also says it blocks every night all known newsgroups carrying child porn and is involved in discussions over legislation or procedures that will balance the rights of all concerned. “We also endeavour to equip our members with the right tools to filter out [offensive] material.”

Last week, a representative of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), said most South African ISPs have chosen to remove newsgroups carrying “obviously damaging content”. This reflects a policy of actively cooperating with police and the Film and Publications Board. In 1998, especially, SAIX and others removed certain newsgroups.

Laura Pollecutt of the Freedom of Expression Institute believes it should not be the responsibility of ISPs to filter content in any way. “I think that could be problematic,” she said, when asked whether ISPs should remove newsgroups marked as carrying paedophilic material. “One would have to approach it with caution, and try to see how one can do that without interfering with freedom of expression.” M-Web is a 65% shareholder in the Daily Mail & Guardian, the independent company that runs the Mail & Guardian website

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