Innocent Web Sites Shut Down

A site-blocking law is being challenged after a slew of Web sites are shut down.

The Web site for the Sheshequin-Ulster Community Center in Pennsylvania contains skating party news, calls for volunteers and minutes of board meetings—but no pornography. Nonetheless, the site was one of scores of sites that had the misfortune of sharing IP addresses with child pornography sites targeted by the state of Pennsylvania and was shut down last summer.

The centers ISP is among more than a dozen ISPs in Pennsylvania that have been issued informal notices from the Office of the Attorney General to block Web sites. The censorship stems from a state statute in 2000 that was enacted to combat child pornography but, according to civil rights advocates, inadvertently suppresses protected speech by blocking hundreds of thousands of innocent sites.

Last week, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania argued before the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that the law violates the First and 14th Amendments as well as the Interstate Commerce Clause.

The Webmaster at the Sheshequin-Ulster Community Center, Laura Blain, did not know that her site was blocked until a county supervisor complained about not being able to locate information, Blain said.

When Blain called her ISP, she was told her site was "caught up in something they couldnt divulge," Blain said.

Lack of notice to the site owner is at the center of the complaint brought by the CDT and ACLU. The organizations argue that content owners due process is violated by a process that involves the ISPs alone. Additionally, since the law went into effect, the attorney general has issued more than 450 informal notices to ISPs, resulting in blocked Web sites, and one formal court order. The attorney generals office maintains that ISPs sought the informal process.

"When this law was passed, we sat down with a number of ISPs to discuss ways to implement it, and the ISPs asked our office to create this informal notification process rather than go to court," said Sean Connolly, spokesman for the acting attorney general.

Pennsylvania concedes that blocking IP addresses can cause "collateral restriction" of some protected speech, but it argues that ISPs can use different means—such as URL filtering—to prevent overblocking.