ISPs could be forced to remove paedophile content

Internet service provider promises to actively crack down on child porn in newsgroups

British ISPs could be compelled to follow Thus' example and remove known child pornography newsgroups from their servers if the Internet Watch foundation is granted greater legal clout in April.

The telco, which owns Demon Internet, said Wednesday it will take a more proactive approach to policing and removing paedophile content from newsgroups hosted by its servers, amid growing concerns in the UK that the Internet is teeming with predatory paedophiles.

"While it is impossible for ISPs to stop all illegal content from being published on newsgroups, I believe that there is much that can be done to police what is currently out there -- to protect the vulnerable and to increase our vigilance," said director of legal and regulation at Thus Keith Monserrat in a statement.

Paedophile activity on the Net has become headline news in recent weeks. This week an Oxford graduate was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy he met in a gay chatroom. Earlier in the month the sentencing took place of seven Britons involved in an international Internet porn-swapping ring that shocked the world. ZDNet News has been leading a campaign to get Yahoo! to remove adult chatrooms from its Instant Messenger client. So far the portal has agreed only to remove chat facilities in the UK, which critics argue is got going far enough.

The IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) is currently holding a public consultation to decide whether or not newsgroups containing illegal pornographic content should be dropped across the board. A decision in April could grant the IWF legal powers to call for the removal of entire newsgroups hosted by British ISPs.

"We could carry on providing raw information to ISPs, or we could recommend that certain groups are removed. At the moment our reports are purely advisory, but one way forward might be for ISPs to remove entire groups," said Ruth Dixon, deputy chief executive of the IWF.

Thus has traditionally been famous for offering a whole range of newsgroups and has also been embroiled via its ISP Demon in a legal landmark battle over the removal of libellous content. It is currently at the discretion of individual ISPs to decide what content they offer to customers.

Dixon says this shouldn't be used as an excuse. "If an ISP is knowingly in possession of child pornography [because we have told them], that is illegal, and they have the responsibility to remove it," she added.

Thus -- a founder member of the IWF -- is pushing for the organisation to produce its hitlist of known paedophile sites on a monthly basis. "We are going to try to make sure that this information is more up-to-date and issued more regularly -- newsgroups are dynamic and move around quickly," said Dixon.

Not everyone believes Thus' move is the best way to rid the Internet of paedophiles. Cliff Stanford, former managing director of Demon Internet, is appalled at Thus' decision.

"It's a shame that the company I founded has lost the plot on how to control this. Removing newsgroups doesn't remove this problem, it spreads the problem to other newsgroups," he argued. Stanford claims that removing obviously titled newsgroups will encourage paedophiles to use more innocuous names, making it harder to police. He says he is disappointed that the original remit of the IWF to protect children online is being obscured by a priority to stop people from looking at indecent images on the Web.

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