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Posted 3/26/2003 10:19 AM

Updated 3/26/2003 10:36 AM

POW pictures spark Internet censorship debate
LONDON (Reuters) — A Florida-based Web hosting company knocked a small news site offline after it posted controversial photos of captured American soldiers, stoking accusations that private firms are censoring free speech. For several hours on Tuesday, was dark, carrying the message "Account for domain has been suspended." Later in the day there was sporadic access. The move is stoking fears that, as more grisly images and accounts of war surface, independent news sites trying to establish a name for themselves will have to tone down their coverage so as not to alienate readers and the companies that keep their sites alive. Erich Marquadt, editor of YellowTimes, told Reuters that Orlando, Fla-based Web hosting company Vortech had first grounded the site on Sunday night after he posted six photos of American POWs plucked from news footage first aired by Qatar-based Al Jazeera television. U.S. television networks had been abiding by a U.S. Pentagon request not to show the footage. "I think we were the first Web site to show the images," he said. "But the site was down a few hours later, without any warning." Marquadt said Vortech, which did not return Reuters' phone calls, cited viewer complaints and argued the images constituted a breach of the firm's usage agreements. "They said we violated the adult content clause," he added. "No TV station in the U.S. is allowing any dead U.S. soldiers or POWs to be displayed and we will not either. We understand free press and all but we don't want someone's family member to see them on some site. It is disrespectful, tacky and disgusting," read the e-mail explanation sent to Marquadt and seen by Reuters. New cops on the beat Small Web-only news purveyors that promise a distinct brand of unsanitised news reporting are encountering more and more publishing constraints as their readership swells. Last year, the FBI asked operators of Web site and its Virginia-based hosting company, Pro Hosters, to remove an unedited, four-minute video of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Related story: FBI wants Pearl video off the Internet).

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Pro Hosters complied with the demand at first, but later Should Web sites have a right to post disturbing war photos reinstated the video, which remains archived on its site. online?
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censors said they were working with Web site publishers and the country's ISPs to ensure that sensitive, war-related information, including the whereabouts of potential missile landings, is not published online.

Vortech's move, legal experts say, is not censorship. But they warn the move could prove costly for such firms, which in the U.S. are afforded legal protections for content published on their networks by third parties as long as they do not exert any editorial controls. "If you're a hosting company or an ISP and you pull stuff for editorial reasons, you are in danger of losing your legal protections. It's not a wise move," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor. User agreements are often broadly written, giving a Web hosting company or an ISP the recourse to remove a site that posts offensive or tasteless content on its network. Many ISPs and hosting companies have been loath to intervene in editorial decisions however, saying they do not want to play the role of judge and jury. But with public war sentiments running high, these firms may feel more pressure to come off the fence, industry observers say. In the meantime, Marquadt said the site, which saw its audience swell "significantly" from its typical readership of 200,000, should be restored later on Tuesday. "I'm going to a small provider in San Francisco, which is like going overseas," Marquadt said. Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited. Click for Restrictions.
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