IWF defers newsgroup policy decision

Online child-safety group divided over whether to take on more authority over ISPs
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor on

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) failed to reach a consensus of opinion on whether Internet service providers (ISPs) should have their self-regulatory approach towards dealing with unlawful newsgroups revoked, when a board member deliberately left Wednesday's meeting to make a vote impossible.

The group was to vote on whether it should take on more power in forcing ISPs to remove newsgroups regularly carrying paedophilic content. But the board was forced to defer any decision after Malcolm Hutty, from the Campaign against Censorship of the Internet in Britain, left the meeting, bringing it below the number of representatives required for a vote to take place.

Within the quarterly meeting, the IWF board entered into an agreement that its policy should comply with the Human Rights Act and be tested by the better regulation taskforce, ensuring that the body is technologically neutral, transparent and accountable. In light of this, Hutty felt that "a more detailed process was needed to properly consider newsgroup policy alongside the IWF's commitment to explicitly consider human rights issues".

The IWF was set up in the autumn of 1996 to look at the growing problem of child pornography on the Internet. Wednesday's consultation on newsgroups considered whether or not the organisation should move beyond its current advisory role, and take on more powers in persuading ISPs to drop newsgroups identified as carrying illegal content. Such a decision would reverse ISPs' current self-regulatory standing, which allows them to decide whether they will act on IWF recommendations.

"I would like to achieve a voluntary agreement by all ISPs that they will stand by IWF advice, with the IWF possessing a degree of force to ensure that content providers act on its recommendations," said David Kerr, chairman of the IWF. "Otherwise the whole basis of the IWF will change from a servant to ISPs to a master of ISPs, moving it towards a statutory regulator."

Speaking from a child protection standpoint, IWF board member Nigel Williams, representing Childnet International, is satisfied with the IWF's notification remit, but argues the importance of introducing consequences for ISPs who fail to act on IWF reports.

"ISPs are exposed under the law for knowingly holding illegal material that they have been advised to take down, but it is up to the police to take action," he argued. "There should be consequences for ISPs who refuse to accept IWF recommendations... the ideal of introducing sanctions is entirely reasonable, with the ultimate punishment being prosecution."

The IWF is content that most ISPs funding the council don't carry offending newsgroups anymore. However, Williams is concerned that within the meeting, little feedback was given on the number of ISPs who remove whole newsgroups containing regular postings of illegal material, rather than just responding to notifications of individual paedophilic articles.

"We have to get from the IWF a minimum requirement principle accepted," argued Williams. He explained that this could be expressed two-fold, by firstly establishing a statistical measure of how regularly particular newsgroups are likely to have postings of illegal material, and secondly addressing the way in which newsgroups are promoted through paedophilic names.

But setting a minimum requirement for ISPs could threaten their prerogative to disagree with IWF recommendations. Hutty argued that "as a minimum standard, IPSs need to be able to make a judgement on whether or not they agree with IWF alerts to illegal articles. If they are breaking the law they should stop, but that is up to the police to enforce through the law."

A second meeting has been proposed for 23 May, when the IWF board will separately discuss the newsgroup issue.

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