Industry moves to limit porn on the Internet

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The Independent Online
The Government will today try to assuage growing fears about child pornography on the Internet, by lending its weight to an industry initiative which it says will both protect children and help catch lawbreakers.

Though it forms at most a minuscule proportion of the data available on the network, child pornography has become a cause celebre for those interested in imposing controls on the rapidly growing system, which is largely unaffected by national boundaries.

"Government and the Internet industry have been working hard to come up with proposals that can offer real protection to Net users, while preserving free speech and recognising its value for work, education and leisure," said Ian Taylor, the science and technology minister.

The initiative, called Safety Net, has been devised by Peter Dawe, who became a millionaire through his ownership of Pipex, a company offering connection to the Internet for the public. Mr Dawe sold the company earlier this year, and has since been working on the new ideas.

Today's meeting follows another a fortnight ago between Government, the police and companies offering public access to the Internet. Police had warned that about 150 of the network's 15,000-odd discussion groups, or newsgroups, could hold obscene material.

In the UK, it is an offence to store obscene images on a computer. But companies argue that they should be immune from prosecution because the equivalent of several encyclopaedias is sent to newsgroups every day, making itimpossible to monitor material.

The new proposals are expected to include the use of "self-rating" systems on pages on the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing part of the network, in which users can display "pages" of text, pictures, sound and even video. A rating system would attach a software "tag", like a film rating, to pages. If children tried to view an adult page, software on their computer would stop the connection. Unrated pages would be assumed to be unsuitable.

The Government's commitment to the scheme will be reflected by the presence today of both Mr Taylor and the Home Office minister, Tom Sackville, as well as Sergeant Mike Hoskins from Scotland Yard, who last month wrote to all the companies providing public access to the Internet warning them about obscene material, and urging them to take action against it.

Internet service providers can do little about obscenity, however, because material can be sent from countries where such material is legal. Their only recourse is to cut off the newsgroups. So far, though, one of the largest providers, Demon, has refused to take that action.

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