Online forums where thousands of child-porn images have been posted have been stricken from three Internet providers, including two of the nation's five largest, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday.
Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint agreed with Cuomo to block access to child pornography disseminated through newsgroups and user groups, a hard-to-regulate sector of the Internet designed to bring together users with similar interests.
With the agreement announced Tuesday, Cuomo skipped over the untold number of individual users accessing child porn and went to the portals that, unwittingly they all say, provided the route to sharing the illegal obsession.
Cuomo said the service providers blocked child pornography found in 88 newsgroups by his investigators. Newsgroups, a mainstay of the Internet from its early days, are essentially online message boards in which users can post text and files in any of thousands of categories.
The companies also agreed to eliminate the material from their servers and will pay $1.125 million to help pay for efforts to remove child porn from the Internet.
The agreements follow a six- to eight-month undercover investigation of child porn newsgroups and will affect customers nationwide.
But, as Cuomo said, such online pornography is difficult to stop. When one point of Web access is closed, the same perpetrators are likely to open another. And his agreements with the online services end at the nation's borders.
"They are very inventive and obviously a lot of this industry moves offshore very quickly," said Professor Christine Corcos of the Louisiana State University Law Center. "As long as the people who produce this material think they have markets, and they think they can reach that market, they are going to continue and the thing is they can just move to other countries."
Cuomo's investigators found more than 11,000 images in the newsgroups using software that identifies child pornography by tracking patterns in the pixels of the images.
Cuomo said the companies acted immediately when told of the concern. He said too many people posted the pornography to prosecute them individually, so he worked to shut off the "faucet" they were using to share the illegal material.
"People are very creative, and there is a market for this filth," Cuomo said at a news conference. "We have to work together."
Time Warner Cable acted when it learned users were posting objectionable material and eliminated the newsgroups, said corporate spokesman Alex Dudley. The company will eliminate all newsgroups by the end of the month, he said.
"We are not admitting to any guilt," he said of the agreement with Cuomo. He emphasized that Time Warner didn't provide any of the content and was simply a portal, allowing groups to be created with content provided by the users.
Verizon acted immediately to shut down the sites and was never accused of wrongdoing, said Eric Rabe, the company's vice president for communications.
"There are people doing whatever they do on the Internet all the time, and we can't possibly scan every use group," he said. "But there are some things we can do and as soon as it's brought to our attention, we work very quickly."
Sprint spokesman Matthew Sullivan said the company also responded. "We embrace this opportunity to build upon our own long-standing commitment to online child safety," he said.
Verizon and Time Warner Cable are two of the five largest Internet service providers in the nation. Sprint is one of the three largest wireless companies in the United States.
Cuomo said his investigation of two other large national service providers is continuing, but he wouldn't name them. He has used similar probes and the possibility of civil or criminal charges to extract concessions on Internet safety in the past.
Last year, Cuomo reached agreement with the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook to toughen protections against online sexual predators.