Internet service providers are increasingly concerned about media and political pressure on them to censor the newsgroup newsfeeds they make available to their customers, particularly newsgroups containing child porn. The argument they've advanced up till now - that they are acting as common carriers, like telcos, and are not responsible for content - is being dismissed by the Metropolitan Police, which has circulated a letter threatening to prosecute them if they don't act soon.
Enter Peter Dawe, a man newly enriched by the sale of his Internet business, and with forthright views on what ISPs in the UK should do. Bobby Pickering sat in on a forum where all the protagonists in the unfolding drama assembled.
Pipex founder Dawe, reportedly u35 million richer since he sold his company last year, is carving out a new role for himself on the Net.
Outspoken and mercurial, he surprised delegates at a conference on Internet censorship in London earlier this month by announcing that he and his wife are setting up a charitable foundation called Safety Net Foundation, to root out pornography and illegal software on the Net.
The Dawes are putting their money where their mouths are - initially in the form of a loan of u500,000 to get Safety Net up and running. The couple want to become the moral crusaders who stopped talking and finally did something about cleaning up the Internet.
Dawe's unexpected announcement at the forum shocked many ISPs, as it came within weeks of his sudden departure from the ISPA - the service provider alliance that had been working with the police to come up with a solution to the problem of porn (not just child porn, but everything that the police claim is illegal porn) on the Net.
But the line being proposed in the Dawe camp - that ISPs should respond to public concerns about the Internet and filter out the newsgroup newsfeeds identified by the police - had reportedly failed to sway the majority of ISPA members.
'I'm the sort of person who gets impatient searching for consensus,' Dawe admitted to delegates. 'Child porn sickens me and I want to do something about it now.'
Asked about comments he had made on departing the ISPA, Dawe said: 'I have been misquoted on this so much, that I'm happy to put the record straight. What I said was that it's very difficult if you're asked to represent a bunch of idiots not to look like an idiot yourself.' Many ISPs were not amused by the comment, and were gob-smacked that someone who made such a public declaration should now be asking them to buy services from his new organisation.
Dawes' operational plans for the Safety Net Foundation also raised eyebrows among representatives from civil liberties groups and lawyers at the conference. He said it will provide a hotline where Internet users can report any porn that they think is illegal. He singled out four areas of concern for the whistleblowers to act on: child porn, illegal porn, legal porn and software that infringes copyright.
The SNF will then pass on this unchecked, unfiltered data on a regular basis to every ISP in the country, whether they ask for it or not. 'They will then have the information and can decide what they do about it for themselves. There is absolutely no compulsion here for them to act,' said Dawe.
Aside, of course, from the fact that any ISP receiving this information could find it less easy to argue (if they ever found themselves in court) along the lines of one of the two main defences for distributing pornographic material: that they had not been aware of, or examined, the article(s) concerned. The other possible defence, by the way, is in the interests of the public good.
But the most serious problem raised by the Dawe initiative is the absence of checks on malicious or false allegations. Dawe admitted that Net users who were the subject of complaints would not be informed that a complaint against them had been entered into the Safety Net blacklist. One lawyer present at the meeting said: 'I would be concerned that you protect yourself from any charges of passing on libellous allegations.'
Dawe said the operation would be self-financing, with income generated by additional services that ISPs could choose to take. These ranged from a cursorily checked version of the raw data to a pre-vetted proxy service that provided ISPs with a censored feed.
Dawe was very concerned to explain that this service was not being set up to compete against existing ISPs - something which will reassure former colleagues at Uunet Pipex, who could have interpreted this as an initiative to offer resellers an alternative service.
Most of the ISPs that had come to the forum were responding to the opportunity to question reps from the Met's clubs and vice (C&V) unit. The unit recently sent to most ISPs in the UK a list of 150 newsgroups that they claimed contained illegal material. In the accompanying letter, the ISPs were told the Met held them responsible for this content.
They were asked to do something about these newsgroups, and told that if they did not do anything then the Met would be forced to adopt an enforcement policy. Many ISPs perceived the letter as a direct threat, reading a highly intimidatory tone into it.
But at the conference, superintendent Mike Hoskins from C&V insisted that the letter was neither a threat, nor advocating censorship. 'All those groups have contained illegal pornography at one stage or another,' he said. 'And it is a criminal offence to pass on illegal pornography.
The ISPs must do something to stop it.'
Hoskins stated categorically that he did not accept the common carrier argument. He told PC Dealer that he had taken advice from the Crown Prosecution Service to that effect, and that he was 100 per cent confident he would win any prosecution against an ISP.
Why, then, had the Met simply not proceeded with prosecuting an ISP or two? 'We'd prefer to handle it this way, with the people who are responsible for it taking it off their systems,' he says.
Some legal sources PC Dealer spoke to said the police were adopting this tactic precisely because they aren't 100 per cent certain of a conviction.
Hoskins admitted that the definition of obscene material in the UK is currently in a state of flux. 'I need the law to be more precise than it is on these matters,' he said.
British courts have recently been throwing out a lot of cases brought by the police against the possession of material that they claim is illegal.
'The police are trying to put the fear of god into all ISPs in the UK so that we end up doing their dirty work,' says a source at one major UK provider.
'Our problem is that they will probably establish a precedent by picking off the weakest among us, and we'll move to a state of self-censorship that will have extremely damaging material effects on our businesses.'
Hoskins privately told PC Dealer that he is under a lot of pressure from certain government departments to act - at least on the problem of child porn on the Internet - so that something is seen to be done.
The law on child porn is sufficiently specific that it could result in something effective being done, such as a child porn hotline based on the Dutch Meldpunt line (see box).
Hoskins told the forum that if a monitoring service was set up to tackle child porn - the preferred option of Demon and others within the ISP organisation Linx - then he would welcome that as 'a step towards where we want to go'. But he refused to withdraw the sword of Damocles threat that the Met has dangled over the ISP community.
'The police have shown that their agenda is so scatter-gunned and scatterbrained, that if we let them get away with this they'll just be ordering us to pull the plugs on everything they don't like,' said one exasperated ISP.
'It'll be the beginning of a new puritanism on the Net, and quite frankly our business will go down the drain.'
It is the business reality of ISP providers clashing violently with the moral agenda of some politicians and the media (not just the tabloids, as the recent stink in The Observer demonstrated) that is feeding the current panic. Nearly everyone agrees that something has to be done about child abusers posting porn on the Internet.
But the two solutions so far proposed - the Dawe plan for Safety Net and the C&V self-censorship approach - are not receiving widespread approval in ISP circles.
Another alternative is being explored by Demon: a Meldpunt-style hotline that allows Net users to blow the whistle on UK paedophiles who are using the Internet to swap child porn. Such a hotline aims simply to get rid of material which no one would argue was legal. At the same time it does not blanket censor discussions about paedophilia, and what we can do to tackle it.
'It's important to separate out the action of child abusers from legitimate public discussion about the subject,' said a delegate from a free speech group at the conference. 'The police want us to throw the baby out with the bathwater.'
Demon is promoting the Meldpunt hotline idea. Marketing manager James Gardiner said: 'We've been looking at the Dutch model, which has the support of the Dutch government, users, ISPs and activist groups over there. We want that kind of consensus here, but we need to move towards it patiently, not be panicked into doing something that will make matters worse, not better.'
But it is unclear from statements made by the company whether it is bowing to government or police pressure to widen the proposed body's remit from child porn to illegal porn in general. Such a move was hinted at by Demon MD Cliff Stanford, who told Newsnight on the day of the forum: 'Demon Internet has always been at the forefront of negotiations with the police, with the DTI and with the Home Office to produce workable solutions to get rid of this minority of people who misuse the Net.
'Just today we have had agreement from the police to set up a hotline where the general public can call us about illegal material found on the Internet, where we can take positive action to remove that material.'
That comment will worry many Demon subscribers, who see the firm at the forefront of the resistance against heavy-handed policing or self-censorship in the UK. If the company comes up with the wrong solution, it could risk losing a sizeable (though not irreplaceable) chunk of its market.
Privately, Demon sources suggest that it wants the hotline to have very specific terms of reference, to be accountable, to safeguard the rights of Internet users and to ensure that it cannot be used to harass others.
It proposes that the body is partly funded by the Linx, a consortium of the 30 or so ISPs that provide the backbone into the global Internet (a grouping which excludes the smaller ISP resellers).
If Demon can get the ISP community to get behind its child porn hotline idea, it could defuse the tabloid hysteria a great deal. It could establish a precedent for Internet regulation that could be monitored for effectiveness, and allow ISPs to get on with the business of wiring up everyone in the UK. Others may then, possibly, make as much money as Peter Dawe has.
The model on which Demon is basing its hotline proposals is called Internet Meldpunt Kinderpornografie (http://www. xs4all.nl/~meldpunt/).
It is supported by the Dutch Foundation of Internet Providers (NLIP), Dutch Internet user groups, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and other government bodies. It was opened by the Dutch justice minister Winnie Sorgdrager in June.
The hotline has specific procedures, all of which have been made public.
It sends an email notification to the user against whom allegations have been made, giving them seven days to withdraw the offending item. This gives individuals who have had their account hacked or been the subject of malicious misrepresentation time to act.
It is also only concerned with pornographic material, and does not aim to rid the Net of any mention of paedophilia or discussions in newsgroups on the subject.
If an individual refuses to withdraw the material, or posts material again at a later date, then Meldpunt hands the information on to the police.
The service restricts itself to accounts within Holland (from email addresses with an .nl suffix). Its aim is to clean up its own backyard, not embark on a moral crusade to clean up the entire Net. It recognises that if every country followed this example then the problem would no longer exist.
Demon thinks that the London Internet Exchange (Linx) could well be the industry body that gives a similar UK initiative the central focus it will need, and possibly some funding. The Linx (http://www.ws.pipex.com/linx/) was set up to let backbone providers co-ordinate Internet traffic within the UK and across the country's borders, providing greater efficiencies in the use of the backbone.
But the hotline initiative may not be regarded as falling within the current objectives of the Linx, and the organisation will have to repair its relations with the Met. At the forum, Hoskins said that an exploratory meeting he had set up with a representative from the Linx had been 'extremely disappointing' and 'a bit of a waste of my officers' time'.
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