Canada's largest commercial Internet service provider has quietly become Canada's largest Internet censor.
Rainer Paduch, president and CEO of Ottawa-based iSTAR Internet Inc., says the decision which was enacted last week was done from a legal standpoint -- not that of being a prude.
What iSTAR has done is block access through its service to a tiny segment of 16,000 newsgroups or discussion areas that form part of the Internet.
Paduch says iSTAR questions the legality of some of that discussion and other material posted there. Although newsgroups are text-based in their nature, the Internet allows people to code pictures in text, download them and reconvert them to pictures.
The "alt.binaries" type of newsgroups are often the ones most visited because of the wide range of pornographic material listed there.
It's the child pornography, the bestiality, and other illegal activities that surround these groups that has iSTAR taking action.
"I wouldn't say it's censorship per se", says Paduch. "Fundamentally, there are laws against child pornography and hate literature."
Also getting blocked is a newsgroup set up to let people download pirated versions of copyrighted software.
"When we start getting complaints about newsgroups, we have to look at this", says Paduch.
Paduch admits that "obviously it's a controversy, a fine line between censorship and dealing with illegal activity" that's been at the core of the Internet phenomenon for years.
"Despite some small groups who are worried about censorship, the larger group -- we call them the quiet majority -- are being quite supportive and they're the ones we're trying to reach."
Paduch says another area of concern is providing space on iSTAR's computers to people for their World Wide Web pages from which they conduct business.
"If we don't do something about illegal activity, the police or government have a right to shut down or take our computer equipment", he says. - Can't stop `spamming' -
But it's impossible to prevent someone from "spamming" or posting the same piece of information, picture, or software to every one of the 16,000 newsgroups with the click of a mouse.
"There are lots of malicious people out there who can make life difficult for us", Paduch says.
He believes many other major Internet companies will follow iSTAR's course of action.
Ken Fockler, president of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers and president of CA*net, the original Canadian Internet backbone linking 10 regional research networks, says iSTAR is caught in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.
He says the controversy goes back several years when universities blocked the alt.fan.karla-homolka newsgroup during the Paul Bernardo trial because of a publication ban.