Thus bends law to avoid responsibility for child porn

But legal experts argue that Thus' interpretation of child porn laws are illogical and oversimplified

British telco Thus is arguing that it cannot legally check for paedophile content, despite making a pledge in February to actively remove unlawful content from its newsgroups.

The owner of ISP Demon Internet is using the Indecency with Children Act that criminalises the possession or distribution of child pornography, to justify its claim that it is illegal for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to download indecent images from its servers for the purpose of checking for illegal content.

"I'm limited by simple legislation that prevents me from looking at child pornography -- how do you decide that something is paedophilic when it's illegal for me to look at it?" said Keith Monserrat, director of legal and regulation at Thus.

There is however a working code of practice within the Internet industry that allows police, the Internet Watch foundation and content providers to check for illegal content on the Web. Hermod Stener, lawyer at city firm Charles Russell, confirmed there is nothing within UK legislation to prevent an ISP from checking articles that it is hosting.

"No statute would prevent an ISP from downloading Web pages that it is hosting in order to check them," said Stener. "It's more a question of them wanting to avoid responsibility for their content -- giving a simple answer."

Demon Internet requires all registered users to sign up to an "Acceptable Use Policy" that warns against customers using the service for illegal purposes. The terms and conditions state: "We will investigate suspected or alleged breaches of this AUP... Demon Internet, at its discretion, may run manual or automatic systems to determine compliance with this AUP. Customers are deemed to have granted permission for this limited intrusion onto their networks or machines."

"Their terms and conditions state that they are able to access everything on their Web pages," said Stener. "When entering a newsgroup, the service provider is contractually bound to reserve the right to throw people out if they are doing something unlawful."

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) -- the regulatory body responsible for protecting children online -- currently checks for indecent images on the Web by sight, which involves downloading child pornography in order to assess whether or not articles are illegal. "The very strictest application of the law is a conundrum that there's no way out of," said David Kerr, chairman of IWF.

Monserrat prevents any of his staff from personally checking newsgroup articles reported by customers to contain child pornography. "How do I know that I will not be considered an accomplice to a crime," he asked. Stener pointed out that there is little logic in this argument. "They are an accomplice to a crime if they are hosting illegal content," he explained.

An EU directive, called the Horizontal Selling Directive, due to be finalised shortly, will make it obligatory for ISPs to remove unlawful content from their servers on positive knowledge.

"This implies an obligation to go into newsgroups and download articles in order to check their content," Stener argued. Kerr said that half of the Web sites reported to the IWF to contain indecent images are actually not illegal. "It is acceptable for ISPs to check these complaints themselves, as the public at large are easily shocked by content, and don't know what's acceptable," he said.

"It's a matter of ISPs keeping their own house in order," agreed police inspector Terry Jones at Greater Manchester police Obscene Publications Unit.

Thus embarked upon a moral crusade in February to actively remove known paedophile content from its newsgroups. One week into its ambitious crackdown on child pornography, reports were already branding the decision "unworkable". Thus continues to deny knowledge of claims that they are still hosting two offending newsgroups the IWF alerted it to a year ago.

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