The battle over who should police the web


They are two tribes with power over all of our lives - but politicians and internet companies just don't speak the same language.

That's become clear as I've spoken to some of those who'll be involved in Tuesday's meeting, called by the Culture Secretary Maria Miller to discuss what can be done to combat harmful content on the internet (see my previous blog here).

Politicians from across the political spectrum accuse the internet companies of turning a blind eye to the issue. "Stop making excuses," the prime minister has said. "Enough is enough," said a spokeswoman for the culture secretary.

Meanwhile, the web firms accuse the politicians of woeful ignorance about how the internet works and what constitutes a practical response to dealing with harmful content. "You just get kneejerk reactions which don't produce the outcomes they want," one executive at an internet service provider (ISP) tells me.

"A dialogue of the deaf" is how Helen Goodman puts it. She's Labour's spokeswoman on this issue - and although she's critical of the government for not acting more quickly, she too is adamant that the internet industry just isn't doing its bit.

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The two sides remain mutually suspicious - but both know they are under pressure from parents and the media to act on this issue”

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Labour's policy now is that ISPs should provide a safe search filter for all their customers, new and old, and should contact them to ensure they make an active choice as to whether it is switched on or off.

And she makes clear her impatience with the ISPs: "They started off by saying that you can't have filters. Then Dido Harding at TalkTalk showed you can. Then they say you can't make people switch it on."

But the internet companies for their part are angry that what they see as separate issues - illegal child abuse images and children's access to harmful material - are being conflated. "We've been summoned in rather offensive terms," one executive tells me, referring to the culture secretary's invitation.

He points out that one of the main weapons in the battle against online child abuse, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), was set up and funded by the industry, not the government, to produce a blacklist of offending sites. And while there's pressure on the donors to provide more resources to the IWF, they ask whether the government is playing its part.

"The real problem is the producers and users of child abuse material," says an ISP executive. "The best organisation for combating that is CEOP (the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre) and its budget is being cut."

A call to CEOP proves this is indeed the case - its budget is down 10% to £6.062m this year, part of the ongoing programme of economies in Home Office spending. That £6m million also has to cover areas like the fight against child trafficking - so it's not clear how much is being spent tracking down the people who commit child abuse by putting these images online.

Still, however cross the internet firms may be about the way they've been painted, the pressure seems to be working. BT has agreed to put up a warning notice rather than a simple error message when customers try to access child abuse images - something the IWF has been advocating for some time. And Google is investing in technology to eradicate images and track down abusers.

The two sides remain mutually suspicious - but both know they are under pressure from parents and the media to act on this issue. An hour and a half around a table in Whitehall is unlikely to provide the answers - but don't bet against some vaguely worded agreement to use all their efforts to make the internet a safer place for everyone.

If, that is, the two sides can understand what each other is saying.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    The video of mums complaining about the ISP's and government that is up on the BBC now can be summed up like this:

    "I'm too lazy to do a 5 minute google search to find out how to use parental controls so I'm going to ask the government to censor what adults AND children see so I don't have to."

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I have to question the 1 million images figure that's being bandered around. 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, how do you determine what that content is, especially with the rise of young teenages upload self images.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    @115.Tiny Toy

    Tor isn't completley annonymous you know

    People have been busted on Silk Road

    Not many --- and it is very difficult , expensive and time consuming

    But TOR is not infallable

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    @Rachel: you have never heard of Tor, have you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Censorship just creates a false sense of security, block this or block that, it won't effect the people its targeted at.

    My ISP is BT, last night I was browsing Pirate Bay looking for some old software from 1998. I guess that block was really effective huh?

    If they had internet censorship when the expenses scandal came out, would we have known about it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.


    "A dialogue of the deaf" is how Helen Goodman puts it. She's Labour's spokeswoman on this issue

    It's more than discriminatory, it's insulting. To suggest that the deaf are unable to communicate or reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    The irony is that any filter were it to work, would probably have blocked this very story.
    The big point here is the willful conflation of the two points, child abuse and children's access to dubious material on the web.
    Really, is access to dubious material so bad when scenes of violence, real and fictional are so commonplace?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    109. ibwa
    "Censorship never works. It does more harm than good."

    More harm? Oh, I see, you mean you're harmed if you can't find medical pictures of children, or you're harmed if the system is misused so you can't find your favourite picture of Lenin. Now I understand!

    You're clearly uninterested in the good, only the 'harm' you are done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    "A dialogue of the deaf" is how Helen Goodman puts it. She's Labour's spokeswoman on this issue .....
    Isn't that discrimination against deaf people ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Censorship never works. It does more harm than good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    107. AKA_Fanzine
    "BT created a filter "only to be used to stop child porn images", a few years later the system is then used to stop torrent sites, where next?"

    The government created prisons only to be used to house convicted criminals, a few years later the prisons are then used to house political opponents, where next?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Censorship of the internet, for whatever reason, is not the answer!
    It doesn't help you catch the perpetrators, or effectively stop pedophiles being able to access these images.
    BT created a filter "only to be used to stop child porn images", a few years later the system is then used to stop torrent sites, where next?
    Don't hide it away, build usage/access logs, find and catch these people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    102. anotherfakename
    "The point is that China has shown you can actually block stuff."

    China is yet another red herring in this debate. Google have shown you can actually block stuff, albeit search results, and they're doing it without any prompting from the government. But is that enough to stop paedos using other search engines? Regulation isn't necessarily all bad you know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Politicians looking for scapegoats. Blame ...
    1. bankers, the financial mess (Govt failure to ensure proper regulation & monitoring).
    2. bureaucrats, draining NHS funding (essential back office support + recruited to meet politicans' initiatives).
    3. big companies, tax avoidance (politicians for giving opportunities).
    4. internet companies, evil content (danger of censorship)

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I don't think I have ever heard any statement or comment on the Internet by any senior politician, of any colour, that showed anything remotely like half a clue.

    These people should be kept away from technology. They are so incompetent they are akin to children with matches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Debates like this just demonstrate the Politician's complete lack of even a fleeting grasp on how this technology functions. For a start, what constitutes a filter? Blanket blocking of specific search criteria? Words have multiple meanings, context is vital and slang is common. The filter would need to know this, and that would need to be for each language. That's forgetting client side encryption

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @97. Donkzilla
    The point is that China has shown you can actually block stuff. The concern I have is that I don't trust this government (or any other here) not to be censoring my news already... to give them more power is a very very bad idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    98. MarkTheW
    "The ISP will just see a stream of data which they cannot decrypt. MP's have yet to grasp this fact."

    Mark, a lot of people here don't grasp the fact, Rory included, it seems.

    ISPs are irrelevant to the debate, which ought to be all about how the search engine industry is regulated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    So going on from the fact ISP's cannot filter my search they can however filter or block the content that I have searched for. But how they do this is in my opinion open to too much interpretation. I searched for "Cockburns Port" and my search engine returns some links and I click on one. An image on that page is called "cockburn.jpg" - should this be blocked? Who makes that decision - software?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Under pressure from parents and media? No Rory, maybe a few in the media with an agenda of their own. Parents fall in two camps - those that care and look after their kids, and the rest. The rest don't care either way, the others already look after their kids so don't need to have someone else (fail) to do it for them.
    I don't trust our governments - and given their behaviour that is fair.


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