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 190.

    Funny thing the Conservatives position on regulation - it changes according social class and who does and doesn't want it! I don't worry to much about trying to get rid of the worst stuff on the web personally, but is it an excuse to dabble in stuff that's no business of the government? I thought this govt. was anti "red tape" and making a "bonfire" of health an safety. Only when it suits?

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    "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...""

    Read this paragraph and you'll know that nothing will change, with this on the agenda I'd commit suicide rather than listen to any more. The ISP's etc will agree to do "that sort of thing" just to get away and then what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    MPs need to keep their dirty noses out of everyones business. Its not about having something to hide, its about freedom. People given criminal records for posting something on twitter.... What? Has the world gone mad? Leave peoples private lives alone. The terrorist argument is flawed because they will simply cease to use the internet or use easy to find work arounds. Dont change because of fear

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    I’m sick of these nannies telling us what we should be allowed to see and think just because a couple of thugs decide to kill someone its rank political opportunism. Yes we accept some controls in the interests of children but the rest they can take a run and jump for. And how did Maria Miller suddenly become the fountain of all knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    It's easy to get round this by using a proxy server.

    Incidentally, use of a proxy server will give you access to, a website denied to the British public who pay for its content.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    I do not agree with blanket blocking of websites, where does the line stop?

    Another issue with ISP blocking is that they are very easily bypassed. The current blocks on The Pirate Bay can be bypassed in 30 seconds. Short of bblocking through every server in the world, it is very much unenforceable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    This keeps coming back again and again doesn't it? It doesn't seem to make a blind bit of difference who we vote for

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    @171 Little_Old_Me

    "There would be no need for Government to control any aspect of the internet if the public weren't so obsessed with ..."

    So if the population are doing something the government thinks is wrong they should step in and stamp it out - you do know where that line of argument is heading to don't you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Parliament needs to put its own house in order NOT interfere with ours. For example, perhaps it would like to debate one consequence of its same-sex marriage bill? Thus: find a formula for the Royal accession should a future king or queen look to a partner in marriage of the same gender!

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I find Eastenders to be 'harmful content', in the sense that watching more than 15 seconds of it makes me want to throw heavy objects at my TV. As a result, I decide not to watch it, it's called self control.

    If I had children I would make sure they didn't watch it either by using parental locks, security measures, and generally being a good parent.

    North Koratebritain here we come...

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Henceforth the right of free speech will be limited to members of HM Government. Plebs will consume only material published by approved Party Donors and Rupert Murdoch. All porn is banned (exception for MPs in course of 'research'). Do as we say, not as we do, you pauper scum.

    By order DC & Chums

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    I wonder if the government will give us a say on internet censorship?

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    I'm a big supporter of removing child porn. I am not, however, a supporter of the government being able to censor sites they deem as "terrorist". This is far too large of a loophole to exploit and far too broad of a category. I figure it would only be a matter of time before they censored everything they didn't like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Web safety.. are you serious? Browsing the web has to be just about the safest thing it is possible to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    I'm no libertarian or conspiracy theorist but again it seems that an act of terrorism is being used by our government as an excuse to censor and spy on us. They need to learn that in a democracy their role is to serve us and not to rule and control us. There is a thin line between protecting the innocent and controlling the populous, I think this line was crossed long ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    A good idea. The likes of Google and all other ISPs are wholly responsible for the complete absence of self-regulation, and should be made responsible for policing the internet in such a way that none of the offensive material currently available reaches innocent eyes.

    We're told regulation exists. Well, it isn't working, and providers need to pull their socks up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Politicians are delusional

    if they think they can control the internet in anyway either for commercial political or social lobby groups

    In reality only the user can control content at the point of use a conclusion arrived at by other developed nations long ago

    Control isp's ?They move off shore

    Filter content they use providers off shore

    Taxation of isp's that moves off shore

    Pointless again

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Politicians love to find a new demon to win popular appeal at the same time getting the satisfaction of telling people what to do, supported by 'concerned groups' who justify their existence by whipping up fear. If it isn't horror films, its video games, or porn, or whatever.

    The internet has existing regulation which is sufficient. Do not legislate for the 0.1% of nutters who exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    ""Woolwich is the latest catalyst," sputtered a suited lickspittle, stumbling up Whitehall.

    "Enough is enough: we need to feebly attempt to reduce the number of sites open to normal UK citizens, while conceding that we can do absolutely nothing about the deep Web and proper baddies".

    Butt out, dimwit. Why does this fall under the Culture Sec's remit anyway?

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    There would be no need for Government to control any aspect of the internet if the public weren't so obsessed with filty porn sites & other associated disgusting websites......


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