Internet regulator considers anti-paedophile powers

The self-regulatory body is looking for new ways to force ISPs to act on illegal newsgroups

The Internet's regulatory body is considering proposals to step up its powers for dealing with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who regularly host illegal content.

A drawn-out board meeting on Thursday discussed whether the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) should take greater responsibility for illegal content on the Internet, by considering stronger action to address paedophile activity in Usenet newsgroups. Proposed measures include a code of practice that would place increased pressure on member ISPs to act on IWF recommendations.

The meeting was adjourned before a decision could be made, but the board will reconvene at the end of this month to finish discussing the report submitted by its chair, Roger Darlington. "There is still a lot of work to do," said David Kerr, chairman of the IWF. "Any decision on powers depends on a decision on the principles of what to do with them." The IWF hopes to reach a conclusion on the IWF's newsgroup policy at its next board meeting in January.

The IWF is a self-regulatory body, set up in the autumn of 1996 to look at the growing problem of child pornography on the Internet. While the IWF has no legal powers to force ISPs to act on its recommendations, it is funded and backed by the two major UK service provider trade associations -- the ISP Association and the London Internet Exchange -- so an increase in its powers is likely to have some impact on content hosted in the UK. The IWF also enjoys the backing of the government and the police.

Cyberliberty advocates are concerned that an IWF code of practice will call the body's advisory role into question. The additional proposal that the IWF will draw up a list of newsgroups that appear to advertise or advocate paedophile content "regresses" to the days when it was originally set up, according to Yaman Akdeniz, director, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties. In August 1996, chief inspector Stephen French at the Metropolitan Police issued the first list of newsgroups thought to contain illegal content, and requested ISPs to act accordingly.

Darlington's report recommends that the IWF widens its remit to persuade all ISPs serving UK customers to remove newsgroups known to "regularly" contain child pornography -- a term that will be determined by the board at a later date. "The decision is to develop an informative approach to the criteria that this might produce -- we have made no decision as to how this would be applied or how we might persuade the ISPs to take any notice," said Kerr.

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