Last week, iSTAR, one of Canada's largest service providers, cut off access to a handful of newsgroups.
Immediately, they received mass media attention for what most considered to be an unprecedented action, but was it really ?
To understand the issue better, one needs some background on how news on the Internet works. There are currently over 18,000 different news "groups" or discussion areas.
A user simply posts a message to a group, and it is disseminated throughout the world. This dissemination occurs on a hierarchical level.
News Servers around the world communicate with each other and exchange articles. The term "News Feed" is used to describe where your news comes from.
For example, if you bought your service from a local ISP here in Ottawa, they would most likely have their own news server. That local ISP's news server would receive its feed from an upstream server, typically at a larger ISP such as iSTAR or Hookup. Should an upstream ISP block a specific newsgroup, all servers downstream of that ISP would also not be able to receive that newsgroup.
The problem now becomes obvious. With most of the local independent ISPs in Ottawa receiving their feed from either iStAR or Hookup, when iStAR blocked newsgroups, the local ISPs found themselves blocked as well.
But is what iSTAR did unique ?
A few years ago during the Karla Homolka murder trial, a few newsgroups started up with articles that contained information banned by the courts. Onet, the non-profit organization that supplies access to all educational institutions, as well as large corporations such as Nortel and the government, immediately banned all groups relating to Karla.
Most local providers do not carry all of the groups anyway. The cost to carry all of the groups is high. More than a gigabyte of news flows daily for an entire feed. When you consider the cost of storing this for any length of time, as well as the bandwidth needed to simply obtain it all, most consider it not to be worth it to carry the little read groups. There are groups that are specific to a geographic region that will probably never be read by anyone in Ottawa. For instance, how many people locally would read the group dedicated to people looking for dates in Sydney, Australia ?
The National Capital Freenet has for years banned thousands of groups. For instance, none of the binaries (groups that carry pictures) are available through the NCF.
Hookup, Canada's other primary national ISP, banned two groups a few months ago. These groups, alt.binaries.warez.pc, and alt.binaries.warez.mac, contain illegal copies of copyrighted software. Upon advice from the RCMP, Hookup discontinued these groups.
The fuss caused by iStAR banning the groups has been overblown. iStAR is a public company which has a responsibility to shield its shareholders from liability. They have not done anything different than most ISPs. Condemning them simply for making a logical business decision is wrong.
At an upcoming meeting of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), iSTAR legal counsel Margo Langford, and the RCMP will be leading a discussion on illegal material on the Net. Expect to see the CAIP issue a statement paper later this summer.