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 10.

    No, get lost. This is nothing more than an attempt by the government at censorship via the "think of the children" argument. The internet is the last refuge of the free thinker - if it means people being able to access "harmful content", then that's the price we pay for our freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Make it law and they will have to comply, after all that's what happened with piracy and the ISP's were told to stop access to The Pirate Bay etc.
    Or is it just a case of money talks.
    I know there are ways round it but at least it wiil be seen to be actually caring instead of just paying lip service

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    And just who decides what's "harmful" ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    And of course how are the ISPs supposed to monitor the internet like that? Many questionable sites are in places outside the jurisdiction of the UK and just blanket barring them from being able to be reached can and will have an effect on legitimate websites that may be unlucky enough to share a host.

    besides shutting down 1 bad site and 3 more will pop up elsewhere. Look at TPB as an example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm not sure how anyone can filter out content on the internet that is so dynamic and moves from place to place. It would be like a digital version of whackamole. Once you take a site down or block it, it reappears somewhere else. Without a system that is tantamount censorship, I doubt theres little that can be done. Education of parents on how to use the web controls in place is key.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is where it starts. Blocking stuff like child abuse and terrorism material is of course important. The only thing that worries me is where does it stop? They are already using this technology to block access to torrent/p2p sites. What next? Stuff the Government just doesn't like for any reason?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It's always sad that governments always use national tragedy to suit their own ends. MI5 said that having more surveillance powers wouldn't have stopped the Woolwich attacks. ISPs already block harmful content eg child abuse so I'm still unsure at what the point of this meeting is unless it's an attempt again to make ISPs censors. Yes the internet can be bad but it's a force for good if left alone

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    ISPs and other web organisations could certainly do more to counter online hate speech from religious and right wing extremists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Just have safe search on by default.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Sounds like Maria Miller and the Government is trying to palm off the responsibility of the state to the private sector. Companies should not be making policies as to what is offensive material and they should not be trying to censor the internet regardless of content. They should focus on educating the people and even promoting businesses to create filtering software.


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