EU plans to control Internet draw U.S. dissent

FRANKFURT -- The European Union, amid a fresh wave of Internet-based child-pornography arrests, has renewed calls for increased control over Web content, plus legislation to protect data in cyberspace, accentuating differences with the United States on Internet regulation.

FRANKFURT -- The European Union, amid a fresh wave of Internet-based child-pornography arrests, has renewed calls for increased control over Web content, plus legislation to protect data in cyberspace, accentuating differences with the United States on Internet regulation.

Against a background of French raids against 50 people and a separate arrest of a British businessman, a British television regulator moved to extend its authority to Internet video, and the EU offered $8 million to fund hotlines to field complaints about possibly illegal content.

Then in Ireland, one official called for appointing a watchdog to push Internet services to wipe out offensive content from the Internet.

"What I really want to try to achieve here is that there would be an agreement between Internet service [providers] that a regulator would be appointed to oversee the material on the Internet," Justice Minister John O'Donoghue told Ireland's Nine O'clock News last week.

"The public could make a complaint to this person, who in turn would get on the producers and get them to agree to ensure that such material was wiped out from the Internet," he said.

Parallel to new efforts against child pornography, the EU recently adopted an action plan calling for a more legislative approach to protecting personal data in cyberspace -- in contrast to the U.S. prescription of allowing the industry to regulate itself.

All of these moves have come as European law enforcement scored victories against online child pornography. In France, police broke up a pedophile ring suspected of exchanging, stocking, and selling explicit photos of children via the Internet. Of the 50 people taken into custody, five have been officially charged so far.

In addition, Scotland Yard, as part of a five-month covert operation with U.S. customs officials, announced the arrest of a British businessman in Miami after a flight from Heathrow Airport.

While Irish officials have called for a new type of regulator for Internet content, Britain's Independent Television Commission (ITC) has begun talking to ISPs in an effort to extend its authority to Internet video. The ITC extended its watchdog role to the Internet in expectation of video proliferating across cyberspace.

The U.S. has refrained from forcing ISPs to block illegal Internet content, recognizing the difficulty of holding an access provider responsible for content that often resides across international borders, beyond ISP control.

And so far, European efforts to hold ISPs responsible for illegal content have had little success.

This year, two directors of French ISP's were arrested on suspicion that their services allowed access to child pornography, and the head of CompuServe in Germany faced similar charges. But none of the men have been prosecuted, and the cases may eventually be dropped.

In the recent French raids, police face the difficulty of pursuing foreign residents and ISPs outside the reach of French authority.

To boost efforts to crack down on illegal online pictures, writing, or images, the EU's executive branch this month agreed to set up a network of hotlines to take calls from members of the public who think they've spotted illegal material on the Web.

The EC also said it wanted to implement a code conduct requiring ISPs to limit access to certain explicit sites, and to bar access to about 500 areas with illegal material. The plan, budgeted at $7 million or more per year, must still be ratified by EU Ministers and the European Parliament.

But it was the action plan to pass new laws to protect private data that brought the clearest dissent from the U.S., which backs "self-regulatory codes of conduct" before putting new rules on the books.

"We are concerned about the fact that [the plan] takes a much more regulatory and state-oriented approach to content issues than we consider desirable for the development of electronic commerce and the information society," the White House said in a responding memo.