Computers: Auntie ventures into taboo zone - A fledgling company will give members of the BBC Networking Club access to Internet, where anything goes - even porn

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The Independent Online
UNIPALM GROUP, which was floated in March and exceeded profit forecasts earlier this month with its first set of annual accounts, is providing an Internet gateway to the BBC Networking Club which officially opens tomorrow.

Unipalm's Pipex subsidiary has been closely involved with the club, which is likely to prove controversial, as it will allow members potential access to computer-screen pornography.

The club has been modelled on other BBC groups, such as the Gardening Club, and has been launched with funding from BBC Education, with the personal backing of controller Michael Jackson.

It was supposed to go live earlier this year to coincide with a BBC series called The Net, but was delayed due to internal technical reasons unconnected with Unipalm. A revised launch of 20 June was also missed but the club will officially open for business tomorrow.

For pounds 12 per month plus VAT, computer owners with modems will be able to log on to the BBC's computer bulletin board - christened 'Auntie' - to exchange news and views on BBC programmes with other members and with programme- makers. They will also be able to download programme transcripts and hold debates.

The idea is to further encourage viewer and listener participation in programme design - a key plank of recent BBC policy. Significantly, a decision was made at the start to use the club to offer access to Internet, the fast-growing worldwide computer network already used by more than 25 million. The parallel is the BBC's decision in the early 1980s to launch its own computers, many of which are still in use in education today.

'A particular objective has been to promote the network within the framework of BBC Education to schools and colleges, because this is a very important technology that people should get exposed to,' explained Julian Ellison, the project co-ordinator.

However, despite its size, Internet is not actually owned or controlled by anyone. Its roots lie in liberal US academic institutions, and freedom of speech and an 'anything goes' credo are important parts of the Internet ethos. Accordingly, BBC club members will have access to Internet's vaunted 'porn sites' and their store of pornography. The material includes colour photographs and video clips that can be viewed on a computer screen, depicting group sex, paedophilia, bestiality and other activities.

'There are going to be disclaimers all over the place, and lots of parental guidance about how to keep passwords safe from children,' Mr Ellison said. Crucially, although the BBC cannot censor or control what club members access on Internet, it plans to censor the 'newsfeed' - Internet-speak for directories showing what is available where. This means users will only be able to access pornography when they know where to find it.

The costs of providing Internet access continue to fall, and it would seem that the BBC has been able to launch the club at little cost, although precise figures are unavailable. It is being run on a commercial basis: 'We want to make an income out of it,' Mr Ellison said.

As more and more companies wake up to the potential of Internet for business purposes, Unipalm and other Internet providers are seeing rapid growth in demand.

'We are growing at 10 per cent a month, with record orders in June,' said Peter Dawes, Unipalm's managing director. 'We have about 70 per cent of the UK market.'

He added that he was confident the partnership with the BBC would produce a big increase in the use of Internet by individuals.

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