June 11, 2008

Abuse of Power: NY Attorny General Andrew Cuomo

One thing you can say about Andy Cuomo; he's not too bright.

Andy is the Attorney General for New York, and he's on a crusade. Remember how well the Crusades went? Andy doesn't.

To be fair, his cause is just; he's fighting child pornography. Any child pornography is too much; I don't think any basically decent person thinks otherwise. No, the problem is not the cause.

It's the method. He's chosen unwisely.

But first, Black Adder! (It's relevant, I promise you!)

Edmund Blackadder has a problem: he lives in Elizabethan England, and he's fallen in love with his house boy, Bob. They burned homosexuals back in the day. Young Bob is an androgynous beauty, as quick of wit as he is pleasing to the eye. He is also actually a young woman, Kate.

Bob's, er, Kate's father, desperate for money, was going to pimp her out as a prostitute since that was the only profession open to a woman of ignoble birth. No dowry, so now one will marry her, so he's ready to pack her off to the nearest brothel. Kate has her own ideas, and disguises herself as a boy and gets a job as Blackadder's valey...and you see where we are. There's a mutual attraction, but Blackadder thinks she's a boy, which means that someone will have to burned at the stake.

As desperate as any Republican up for election this year, Blackadder seeks the council of the Wise Old Woman:

I love that Blackadder!

Andy Cuomo wants to do something about child pornography that will get him noticed. Why? He wants to be GOVERNER, of course.

As I said earlier, the problem isn't the goal, it's the method. He's forcing several ISPs to cut off access to Usenet, the oldest and most venerable part of the internet.

I have to give you some boring history; if you know what Usenet is, feel free to skip ahead.

Usenet is basically a network of message servers. It was the first interconnected network of unrelated computers, and was the skeleton the rest of the Internet built on. It's like our limbic system; a primitive network buried under layers and layers of newer, faster, and sleeker networks. Most ISPs still offer direct access to Usenet; you access by using a newsgroup reader and accessing your ISP's NNTP server.

It's not unlike email, but instead of messages going to the mailboxes of individual users, the messages are posted to a "group." For example, if you're interested in genealogy, there are hundreds of groups dedicated to it: genealogy, genealogy methods, genealogy for specific countries, etc.

And there are also HIERARCHIES of groups; for example, if you are approaching genealogy from a social history point of view, you might belong to soc.hist.genealogy, or soc.genealogy. If you're french, the group might be fr.soc.genealogy. Perhaps your interest is in genealogy software, in which case you'd be subscribed to comp.genealogy.

These hierarchies go back to when Usenet was mainly used by Universities and scientists. But sometimes a group didn't fit into a hierarchy, or the constraints of soc.genealogy (or whatever) was too stuffy and formal. Or maybe you wanted to create a new group, but the universities didn't see the need, or felt it was frivolous.

Thus was born the ALT hierarchies. All you had to do was get your server's administrator to create a group on your own Usenet server to create an alt group; the others would automatically pick it up. And a lot of administrators cut that step; if you posted to an alt group that didn't exist, the server would create automatically create it.

There are a lot of alt groups. Hundreds of thousands of them. And of course, it didn't take long for porn to find its way to the Usenet "alt." hierarchy. There are thousands of groups that start "alt.sex.*" or "alt.pornography.*"

Sadly, 88 of those groups are dedicated in one way or another to child pornography.

Usenet is designed to survive a global nuclear war; there is no centralization. Once a group is created any number of servers around the planet host it. And every server hooks up to every other server, in endlessly random rotations. Messages aren't routed to any particular server or user; it's posted to the GROUP. Each time a server connects, it compares lists of newsgroups. They each add groups from the other until they match. Then they compare messages within the groups, and exchange messages until those match on both servers. Then they let go and connect to other servers, and start over again.

Investigators can't track Usenet messages like email. And you can't really tell who downloaded messages from a particular group; you could watch one server, but that won't help because there thousands of servers all over the planet.

So Andy Cuomo's idea is to shut down Usenet. Or at least, forbid you from accessing it.

He's chosen the wise old woman's third plan; instead of punishing the guilty, punish everyone else.

The ISPs in question CAN simply block those specific 88 groups from their servers. Oh yes, each server adminstrator can determine what groups it wants on its servers, and block those groups.

Instead, Time-Warner is going to shut down its NNTP server completely. It doesn't seem that they are going to adjust its fees to reflect the lost service. Sprint and Verizon aren't ditching it entirely; they've decided to block the entire alt hierarchy. That's nearly a third of the newsgroups; and the 2/3 that's left services every other country on the planet; most of them are not in English. They don't want to take the chance of being accused of not trying to stop kiddie porn, even though they probably know that their impact on child pornography will be exactly nil.

It's going to cost tens of millions of innocent people access to a portion of the Internet. And the sad part is that it doesn't actually get rid of those 88 newsgroups, or prevent anyone from accessing them. While Cuomo can run roughshod over the 1st Amendment to stop US providers from having newsgroup servers, there's nothing to stop pedophiles from paying for access to an independent usenet server, and access their filth that way.

Right now, there are Republicans out there getting read to shout "Hey, if the PEDOPHILES can pay for access, that means everyone else can, too!"

That's true. But why should I be forced to do it so that Andy Cuomo can pretend to fix a problem? Why punish the innocent? Some of us have been involved in newsgroups for decades; we have friends that we've never met on these groups. I confer with people in my business all over the globe via usenet: our free exchange of ideas have helped all of us create new solutions to problems. I've learned new approached to my hobbies, and I've even found distant cousins.

No, he's not actually doing a damned thing about stopping child porn, all he's done is created an excuse for your ISP to reduce your service without reducing its fees. He's forcing tens of thousands of users to cough up more money to regain the service Cuomo so cavalierly is about to steal.

The US Constitution exists to protect us from tyrannical jerks like New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.


  1. Trouble with your manservant is always tricky. I never did get the hang of the usenets, are they just glorified chat rooms, or is content stored in them?

  2. There's definitely content in the groups I frequent. If the server administration doesn't do a good job, SPAM can often drown out the actual content of the group. But there are definite worthwhile groups out there.

    You'd enjoy alt.callahans, for instance. It's a virtual version of Callahan's Place, based on the Spider Robinson stories. We got SCA folk, FenFolk, rocket scientists, musicians, and every stripe of humanity you can imagine, and a few who insist that they are not human at all.

    rec.arts.theatre.stagecraft is slowing down, but you can still get lots of help with some of the more obscure problems we face in technical theatre.

    And I've gotten some good leads in alt.support.celiac.

  3. Andrew Cuomo is a jerk. Bully is now his tag name. Nothing has been accomplished by this AG to stop child porn, but he continues to take bows and credit for it. That's right, he's not a bright guy because his ego is so over the top it gets in the way of real thinking. What a jerk!