Government demands action on web safety

Internet mouse

Google, BT and a clutch of other web giants and internet service providers have been put on notice - the government wants action on sorting out the problem of harmful content on the internet.

The Culture Secretary Maria Miller has summoned them to a meeting on 17 June where they will be expected to come up with plans to do more to stop access to material such as child abuse images or material designed to promote terrorism.

In her letter to the companies, the culture secretary says there is widespread public concern:

"Whether these concerns focus on access to illegal pornographic content, the proliferation of extremist material which might incite racial or religious hatred, or the ongoing battle against online copyright theft, a common question emerges: what more can be done to prevent offensive online content potentially causing harm?"

In a briefing to journalists, the language is even blunter.

"Woolwich is the latest catalyst," an aide to Ms Miller says. "Enough is enough - concentrated effort is now needed by the whole industry."

What this effort is expected to achieve in terms of concrete action by the companies is a lot less clear. They may point out that a whole lot of different concerns, from child safety to copyright infringement, are being lumped together.

In the case of child abuse images (not "child porn" as some government officials still erroneously describe it) the law is already clear - they are illegal. The Internet Watch Foundation maintains a blacklist of such images, updated twice a day, and its members agree to block them - though there will be pressure on the industry to do more to fund the IWF's work and be more proactive in hunting down offending sites.

But when it comes to other material that may be considered harmful but is not yet illegal, the internet industry may struggle to respond to Ms Miller's demands for action. The companies will ask who is to decide exactly what is harmful and should be prevented from "potentially causing harm", and they will not be keen to be cast in the role of internet censor.

The Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is suggesting various ideas to be discussed at the summit. They include "a set of industry-wide protocols around how they respond to concerns around content when they arise, a look at the extent to which filters can be used, looking further at the public wi-fi proposals beyond the pornography focus". It is also pointing to the code of practice agreed by the mobile broadband companies which restricts access to certain content on mobile phones and asking why the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft can't come up with something similar.

The government is stressing that it isn't going into the summit with a list of demands, but, in the words of one official: "We're saying this is a serious issue, there's a lot of concern and we want you all to think about what you can do."

The companies invited to the summit are keeping their heads down for now. But I imagine conference rooms at Google, BT and Microsoft will be booked out for the next fortnight as worried executives try to come up with simple solutions to make the internet a safer place.

Update: 12:56 BST

A number of web liberty campaigners, including the Open Rights Group and Index on Censorship, have written to Maria Miller expressing their concerns about her planned summit.

They warn that "an understandable desire to ensure a 'safer' environment online can easily lead to overreaching or unaccountable powers or practices".

Jim Killock, of the Open Rights Group, said the government should be talking about concerted international action against criminals posting illegal content, rather than attempting to blame internet companies.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Great. Goverment want firms to control content, but still reserve the right to Spy on users!
    Typical. Anyone really believe in Freedom in UK any more??

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    People who think ISPs can wave their magic wand and make bad stuff on the internet disappear have got their heads in the clouds.

    There are always ways around content filtering such as proxies, and encrypted SSL enabled private web servers. The only real way to deal with this problem is to educate children at an early age about internet porn and all things bad on the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    takes less than 5 mins to get around blocks just use a proxy server its how people get around blocks on torrent sites and anyway i pay for internet access i dont need some minister in her ivory tower telling me what i can and cant see if if its legal then its down to me to censor myself not someone else this is just another way for the goverment big brother to snoop on people

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Even if there were blocks in place how successful are they likely to be. Sure they'll inconvenience a number of people but the ones they want to block will be around the blokes in a matter of minutes. When working in China it took me around 5 minutes to circumvent the great firewall so I cold read the BBC news site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Websites can already be blocked quite easily (internet traffic goes through a few main hubs, which can be set to quietly filter out content), and you don't need a law for that. So, why the political theater? This "debate" on the Internet is beginning to resemble the Tyndale/More debate over whether the truth lay with the word or the Church hierarchy: thankfully, then, the word won out - and now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    This concept is deeply concerning, who defines what is harmful? Who defines what is terrorism? The goal may be noble but the terms used are so vague they are open to interpretation.

    For example, What is harmful? Something that promotes going against the Government and social norms? Yes?

    Congratulations under your control slavery still exists, only men can vote and America is a colony.


  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    It's not rocket science to track down the senders, or to block them. Why don't they do that?

    Ah, but then they won't be able to snoop and plead National Security will they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.


    Just a thought, but maybe you should change whatever it is you're searching for.

    Just because you don't have the capability to use a search engine properly, it doesn't mean we all need to be mollycoddled by the state.

    Independent responsibility is part of evolution, not devolution - go find somebody's hand to hold if you find the big world so scary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    I don't consider myself old (I'm only 30), but some I remember a time when typing a word into a search engine didn't bring you images of severed heads, dead bodies, hateful messages and the like...and it was a nice time. It seems the internet has made the human race's battle to devolve that much more acheivable...I'm all about freedom of speech, but violence isn't speech, porn isn't speech...

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    290 realisticlogic (huh?)

    if people choose to emulate others, real or fiction. they are still responsible for their choice of action. the most damaging things are sick and vile ideas; things left to fester in the mind, not films and images.
    copycat crime is still just crime with no blame on the thing copied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    please be aware that for your safety & security, cctv is in use, your web link is monitored, your emails are stored. your opinion is noted and through fear, your vote and behaviour is guaranteed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    The answer is perhaps, not to ban this or that, but to make the ISPs properly fund, skilled teams that look for, report and work towards removal or blocking of content that breaches existing laws, This would support prosecutions and target suppliers, who are the real problem.

    This would make illegal porn, hate sites, violent sites and terror sites much less available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    @290 - the last sentence in post 243 is the important one. People who react this way are already disturbed and/or stupid. They won't stop being disturbed/stupid just because someone prevents everyone having access to material that has no effect whatsoever on 99.99% of the population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    85 two-bit

    actually the teacher didnt have any indecemt puctures. they were all low on the copine scale.. the worst being sneakily taken shots.His collection was seen as indicative of avsexual interest but were all beliw the level of porn.
    This illustrated that you cant defone what should and should not be available

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    279 @HalfWit

    "If the price of on-line liberty is child exploitation and terrorism then I'm all for censorship."


    The government and other idiots would have you believe that we can fight child exploitation and terrorism by censoring everything that people say and do. But they never quite explain how their laws will prevent ciminals (who are known for their law-breaking) from committing crimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    BEARDS, some time ago i was doing some resrarch on BEARDS, and by accident i found some stuff, which was not to my taste, and wish i had not seen, it was not illegal, but to some it would have turned them on. How would you police, BEARD content on the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    This move can only be viewed as being founded in ignorance and a lack of sagacity, or from the more sinister 'control' angle.

    Using indivdual cases to justify broad sweeping national state-enforced rules affecting a population of 60 million simply does not follow. It is the sort of notion that implies the vulnerability (or culpability) of all, or at best panic mitigation..

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    You see a very nice house on your street, nice garden, nice car in the drive, everything looks just fine, but you don't know what's going beyond closed doors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    you can't blame the web for extremist and child molesters .. Make the punishment fit the crime .if your an extremist you get to sit at home on the benefits and if you look at child porn you get put on a list with a few years in jail ,extremist , kick them out and child porn people , castrate them .. simples .as for illegal downloads .doesn’t cost £35 to make a blue ray DVD ( stop the rip off )

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    I bet half the people on here that scream for internet freedom are the first to turn to the the law when it comes to their own human rights.

    "I want to do what I want, but when someone else does and I don't like the effect, I want them stopped!"

    Total hypocrites and completely self centred.

    Does an "opt in" really stop your freedom? Of course not.


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