The list and the hysteria

When the police moved to ban pornography on the Net, it set off a storm in the press and in the industry itself. By Richard Barry
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last month, when the Metropolitan Police wrote to the hundreds of companies in the UK that provide Internet services, urging them to prohibit access to sites on the Net which, it said, contained illegal pornographic material, the reaction was swift and strong, both inside and outside the Internet community.

The list of 133 Usenet "newsgroups", the Net's vast array of electronic bulletin boards, included those ranging from the seemingly innocent to the unfathomable But the newsgroups on the list that attracted the most media attention were those devoted to paedophilia. It is here, in these dark corners of the Internet, that paedophiles around the world are able to exchange information and disturbing pornographic photographs of children.

"There's no doubt that the Internet carries a vast amount of paedophile material which is made widely available all over the world," says Superintendent Stephen French of the Metropolitan Police's Club and Vice unit. "The fact that it is an electronic form doesn't make it any less illegal."

While there can be no argument about the illegal nature of some of the material on the Metropolitan Police's list, it has provoked a controversy over the complex issue of who is responsible for controlling access to the Internet. As a result, the companies that provide access are being forced to make difficult, and potentially unpopular, decisions.

These Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have thousands of customers all over Britain who can, through the use of their services, access areas of the Net where paedophiles supply their illegal pornography.

The Metropolitan Police wrote to the ISPs following a meeting with the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), the group that represents the ISPs in this country. But the Internet community has reacted in utter dismay and elements of the national press have engaged in sensational reporting of a complex issue.

"There has been so much bad press in the tabloids about the Internet and the irresponsibility of the ISPs that it's no surprise people are concerned about this," says Andy Cowan, technical director at Wave Rider, an ISP in the West Midlands, referring to recent reports ranging from the predictably reactionary Mail on Sunday to the usually more thoughtful Observer.

The Observer last week published a "special report" on paedophilia and the Internet that included headlines such as "The school governor who sells access to photos of child rape" and "These men are not paedophiles, they are the Internet abusers". Part of the report centred around a director of Demon Internet, the UK's largest ISP, which has declined to adhere to the police's request to block access to pornographic newsgroups (see article, right). The Observer implied that the director and his company were in the business of providing access to the Net for paedophiles. This is clearly not the case.

Yesterday the Observer continued its "campaign to clean up the Internet", but its report appeared to be an exercise in damage limitation. All ISPs provide, unwillingly, access to illegal pornographic Internet sites, just as BT provides a service, unwillingly, for heavy breathers.

Demon Internet is considering legal action over the Observer articles and has criticised any action taken by the Metropolitan Police or other ISPs to sever access to the newsgroups in question.

"The problem with this is that the groups will move to other sites that could make the material more widely available," says James Gardiner, Demon Internet's spokesman.

Last year in the United States, ISPs were told to sever access to a site which contained pornographic photographs of children, but once the site was cut off it simply reappeared at rec.disney, a newsgroup dedicated to discussions of Disney films that has a massively greater audience, mainly comprising children.

Andy Cowan is scathing in his derision of the Metropolitan Police action: "They don't understand the issues and have potentially put a far greater number of people at risk of seeing this material, which is in fact illegal."

The police argue that under the Obscene Publications Act and the Protection of Children Act, the ISPs are breaking the law and must act to stop the material from being accessed. But Richard Sharpe, ISPA spokesman, says the police have "jumped the gun" and "have acted under pressure because they needed a result". This is a view that seems to have been lost on Piers Paul Read, writing in the Mail on Sunday, who accused one ISP executive, Neil Ellul of Easynet, of being "irresponsible" for not blocking access to the newsgroups.

Richard Sharpe argues that such "trashy, ill-informed journalism" oversimplifies the issue. "These journalists, who have little understanding of the real consequences [of blocking sites], have hijacked the story."

Supt French accepts that there is a "displacement issue" but adds: "We acknowledge that we shall never rid the Internet of paedophilic pornography, but everything must be done to prevent access to these sites."

The difficulty in dealing with the problem of child pornography on the Net isn't unique to Britain. Not one country in the world has arrived at a fail-safe solution. But Chris Russell, editor-in-chief of UK On Line, doesn't believe either the ISPA or the Metropolitan Police have a grasp on the reality of the problem. "I don't understand how this has happened. I sympathise with the police. It must be very difficult for them. However, the ISPA is responsible for making sure this is not the case. The Internet community has been terribly misrepresented."

Richard Sharpe remains optimistic: "Although the police have put us in a very difficult position, I feel this issue will unite the Internet community. When that happens, we will be far better able to deal with this issue."