- 23 Feb 09, 10:05 GMT
Children's charities are accusing the government and the internet service providers of a failure to ensure that all domestic broadband users cannot get access to sites showing child abuse images. This is a battle over the merits of self-regulation versus legislation.
But it's also another row over the Internet Watch Foundation, the charity which has been acting as a self-appointed - if widely supported - policeman of child abuse sites for many years. Last December the IWF was widely criticised for blocking a Wikipedia page about the 1976 Scorpions' album Virgin Killer because it featured a naked young girl. The IWF quickly reversed that decision - but web libertarians saw the incident as evidence of internet "regulation creep".
The big ISPs all use the IWF's list of banned sites, which is updated twice a day after the charity's staff examine questionable sites reported to them by members of the public. The process, as we discovered during the Wikipedia row, is automatic. Once the ISPs have signed up to the list, then whenever their users click on any link, that URL is checked against their list, and customers get a "website not found" error message if there is a match.
But why has a minority decided to opt out - or rather not opt in? The Internet Service Providers Association told me that cost was an issue - the system was potentially probitively expensive for smaller ISPs to implement, in particular those that mainly served business customers with just a few domestic users. I'm still not clear why that should be the case and indeed the one company I've spoken to which doesn't use the list cites completely different reasons.
That company was Zen Internet, a small Rochdale-based ISP with a reputation for great customer service (in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a customer). They provided me with this statement: "Zen Internet has not yet implemented IWF's recommended system because we have concerns over its effectiveness. Our Managing Director, Richard Tang, is going to meet Peter Robbins the Chief Executive of the IWF to discuss these concerns."
I was also pointed towards the work of Dr Richard Clayton, a Cambridge computer scientist who has been a long-term critic of aspect of the Internet Watch Foundation's work. He has written at length about technical aspects of the blocking system - but his overall conclusion is that the blacklist is just a waste of time. Why? Because most of this material is held abroad and the IWF is ineffective about getting it removed.
He told me that, if the aim was to stop people coming across these images by accident, then the system was a failure because that didn't happen anyway: "This material tends to be held on paid-for sites or is held by people who don't publish it to the world because they don't want to get arrested."
Dr Clayton's view is that the big ISPs use the system because they've been pressured to adopt it, but smaller firms are perfectly justified in opting out. "Everybody thinks they've done something by blocking this stuff but in practice it makes very little difference to who sees it and it's quite expensive."
For its part, the Internet Watch Foundation says it has neither the powers nor the resources to act as a global policeman. The charity says the only real solution is to remove the offending material at its source - but it insists that its list is part of a "layered approach" which can disrupt the activities of the child pornography merchants and protect innocent users.
The charities want the government to get heavy with the 5% of ISPs who are refusing to adopt the Internet Watch Foundation list. "The idea that blocking child pornography is an optional extra we do not accept," one charity official told me. "It is technically possible and should be counted as the cost of doing business in the United Kingdom." But Richard Clayton suspects that a mood of realism has infected ministers, who will be satisfied with 95% compliance by the broadband providers: "The government has seen sense," he told me, "and has decided that legislation is inappropriate."
It would be hard to find anyone who thinks that blocking access to images of child abuse is a bad idea. But getting agreement on how to set about that task is a whole lot harder.
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