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 30.

    The government wants to control the internet as it is a free media. They will use any excuse they can but what they are after is the control of information. The internet should always remain open and free.

    Control information - control the population - side step democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    It is only there if you go looking for it.

    I've used the internet since the mid to late 90s and I've never once come across the "harmful" material our leaders would have us believe the internet is plagued by.

    If you don't go looking for it you won't find it - it's as simple as that.

    There are too many luddites telling us about technology that they themselves don't understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    "or the ongoing battle against online copyright theft"

    Sounds like the government is seeking to defend the profit margins of its friends in the media industry.
    Every time the Government wants more control of something it trots out the same old propaganda about child porn and terrorism?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    @ 24 Phil
    There's a difference between making content illegal (which is basically the current setup), and actively scanning every bit of web traffic to try and find said content.

    Ignoring the technical difficulties for a moment, is it right that a government should be actively monitoring its entire population to stop a handful?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    this in itself should serve as an 'unsuitable for the position' flag for the culture secretary, as it shows a complete lack of understanding of the internet, and a complete lack of understanding for why censorship is bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    All Governments are terrified of what the cannot control and the internet is utterly terrifying for them. They also don't understand it. It is shocking to try to avoid scrutiny by having ad hoc agreements. ISP should tell them to go away. Telephone companies aren't responsible for phone call content, if you want to control legislate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Why do we have regulations??? Because generally we cant regulate ourselves.
    We all get annoyed when the system is abused but do nothing about it, yet bleat when someone tries to be the mediator. We dont need a controlled state, but without any control we have, chaos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This is interesting. When this subject comes up in the more mainstream parts of the BBC news site, then people who think there should be some restriction tend to get the most support.

    When it comes up in the technology part of the site it tends to be the other way around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Categorising file sharing, alongside child abuse and terrorism is wrong. File sharing harms no one and the other two are a scourge.

    They also keep bringing up Woolwich and the murder of April Jones as a reason to impose further censorship on the Internet, but if memory serves me well, we had child killers and terrorism, long before the Internet was ever conceived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    the most harmful thing here to this country is our home office.

    They should be protecting us from governments internet snooping, not using the current headline scare to erode our freedoms.

    I think we need a home home office to protect us from the home office.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    If the govt wishes to censor the web then it should publish draft legislation and we can all decide whether or not it is an unwarranted infringement of liberties.

    Culture Sec should also do some basic research about what the internet is

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Here we go again. I have been writing about this for 20 odd years - ( - the actors change but the script is identical: Government demands censorship but *will not legislate* for it. By forcing 'gentlemen's agreements on ISPs they deny democratic scrutiny. And conflating ordinary porn with cp is disgraceful. Signed, A Political Extremist... I expect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    In other words NSA in UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    There have been previous attempts to block pornographic sites that resulted in the sites of The Lancet and other medical and scientific journals being blocked (and don't forget the problems that residents of Scunthorpe have experienced).

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    "Woolwich is the latest catalyst"

    But the internet had nothing to do with what happened at Woolwich!This is just puritanism. All this will do is force people into darknets.

    After all, Silk Road still seems to be functioning perfectly well, and what's the betting no one in Government is even AWARE of it.

    Another example of the nanny state that the Tories are supposedly against.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Get lost tyrannical state. Censorship is unacceptable other than by the choice of the individual. The net nor anything should be censored down to the banality suitable to a three year old.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Do we really want the situation where the government decides what we can and cannot see on the internet? Type 'Tiananmen Square protests' into your favourite search engine. If you live in China your results will be censored. Imagine not being able to find out what those crazy boys at the Bullingdon Club are up to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's depressing that we have a "Culture" Sec who is so ignorant about how the Internet works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    What is offensive to one is not to another. It is not government’s job to say what it and what is not. Both parties in the UK have tried to tame the beast that is the internet because they fear power slipping away from themselves, who they see as the only ones who can make decisions as professional politicians, to the hands of the general citizen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    People will simply be driven towards operations like darknets. The very people you are trying to catch will simply move to another system, making them even harder to trace.

    You would think the government would be smarter than this. We are clearly under the rule of noobs.


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