The battle over who should police the web

 
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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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