Survey: Web users ignore illegal content

Surfers don't report illegal material when they come across it on the Net, which may leave ISPs in a difficult position

Internet users aren't up to much when it comes to reporting dodgy content on the Web, research has revealed -- surfers are failing to let the authorities know when they come across content that breaks the law.

Research conducted by ICM Research for the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) found that Internet users were baffled by the legal niceties of publishing content to the Web, with under one-third aware that those who post the content are legally responsible for it.

While those putting up sites with illegal content aren't likely to be too concerned about the consequences of their actions, home and business users might be accidentally risking legal repercussions.

Out of those surveyed, over one-fifth of people surveyed would show other people unlawful Web sites they found -- unintentionally breaking the law -- and one in eight said they wouldn't bother to report it to anyone.

So who should illegal content be reported to? The Internet Watch Foundation has a hotline to report instances of Web sites that break the law. The police are another obvious avenue and ISPs will take down flagrantly illegal content when informed.

But when things aren't so clear-cut -- in defamation cases or copyright infringement, for example -- ISPs have a harder time of it. An ISPA spokesman told silicon.com that where content was harder to judge, ISPs have to balance their legal responsibilities with the needs of customers.

"It's difficult for ISPs to know what to do. They're stuck with this conundrum -- they have to uphold the contract they have with customers and, at the same time, protect their customers' human rights and right to free speech," he said. "If it's defamatory, it will be taken down but ISPs don't have the expertise or authority to decide on that."

ISPA is calling for the government to step in and give them a bit of direction -- at the moment the industry adopts a more self-regulatory approach. The association would like to see a single procedure to decide the illegality of material and a central body to notify them of the results.