IWF lambasted for plan to ban newsgroups

Civil liberties groups say the Internet watchdog's resolution will compromise the self-regulatory standing for ISPs

Cyber-liberty advocates have lambasted the UK Internet regulator's decision to close down newsgroups that are known to regularly contain child pornography, dismissing the decision as a desperate attempt to justify the organisation's existence.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) resolved on Wednesday to take a tougher line with Internet service providers (ISPs), by telling them to completely drop newsgroups that are found to contain illegal content on a regular basis. But civil libertarians have slammed the decision as "deplorable", claiming that the move inverts the original advisory remit of the organisation.

The IWF was set up in the autumn of 1996 to look at the growing problem of child pornography on the Internet. Its role was to act as a mediator between the Internet industry and law enforcers, following fears that ISPs would be held responsible for hosting unwholesome content posted by third parties.

"The original purpose was to sift out kneejerk reactions that were going to be counterproductive... amid concerns that the police would go wading in there banning newsgroups, " said Malcolm Hutty, director of the Campaign against Censorship of the Internet in Britain. "Now it's trying to set itself up as a regulator and claim that it has some kind of legal clout."

Under the new resolution, the IWF will be requesting ISPs to submit more responsible newsgroup policies, and drop offending newsgroups contained within its monthly report. "It's attempting to create a form of political pressure... not a single child will be protected by this policy," said Hutty. "The foundation is clearly very concerned by what the government thinks of it."

To date, ISPs have been granted a self-regulatory standing which allows them to choose whether to act on IWF recommendations. Under the Protection of Children Act 1978, content providers are exposed for knowingly holding illegal material that they have been advised to take down, but in the past this has only applied to individual articles known to contain child pornography.

"The self-regulatory word isn't appropriate anymore," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties. "I would prefer to see them as a proper public body rather than in the middle, as at the moment there is no accountability."

But Nigel Williams, director of children's charity Childnet International pointed out that the legal framework of the IWF has not changed -- the legality of Internet content is ultimately an issue for the courts to decide.

"We're dealing with criminal material here -- the ultimate sanction against ISPs lies with criminal law and the police," said Williams. "The police will be receiving the IWF reports, and will have the power to confront ISPs."

A meeting of the Home Office's Internet taskforce this afternoon is expected to review the IWFs power to enforce yesterday's resolution.

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