Internet watchdog slow to sniff out porn

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The Independent Online
A high-profile industry initiative to clean up the Internet has received just 34 calls in its first full month of operation.

Of those, only half were alerting it to material which actually was illegal, according to David Kerr, chief executive of the newly formed Internet Watch Foundation. He said "half a dozen" of those - all involving child pornography - had been reported to the police. None originated in the UK.

Internet Watch - originally known as Safety Net - was started in September in a blaze of publicity. Ian Taylor, the science and technology minister, and the head of the Metropolitan Police's vice unit gave it their public backing, and it received pounds 500,000 funding from Peter Dawe, founder of Pipex, one of the UK's biggest companies providing links to the Internet.

Although Mr Taylor said the scheme was not an attempt to legislate the Internet, Mr Kerr now thinks that the time is ripe to begin "rating" Internet discussion groups (known as "newsgroups") and "pages" on the World Wide Web - a move that could cripple the usefulness of the global network for research and discussion.

There are about 22,000 newsgroups, dealing with a vast range of topics. Of those, hundreds of newsgroups deal with sex - either in text or with pictures. Almost all the reports to the foundation derived from postings from other countries to sex-related newsgroups, which are accessible internationally.

A rating scheme would act like a film censor's certificate, giving a broad-brush guide to the content of a page. Rating most newsgroups would be routine, said Mr Kerr: "People in the industry tell me you could quickly narrow it down to 1,000 newsgroups requiring careful consideration." A newsgroup would be rated according to its "usual content", rather than requiring people to rate their postings as they sent them in. Web-page authors would be expected to rate their own pages.

The ratings would work in conjunction with software on a user's computer. A parent might thus allow a child to view material judged suitable for 12-year-olds but not 16-year-olds.

The proposal was immediately attacked by Malcolm Hetty, a programmer who runs the Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain.

"Newsgroups already have a classification system: it's their names," he said. "It's how you get to a particular sort of material, no matter what subject it is. It only works because it's down to the user's choice of what to read or write about.

"If you try to apply some rating to that, and remove the user's power then you'll get displacement. People will try to circumvent the ratings by putting the material into another newsgroup so people can see it."

This could mean that more newsgroups would have to be more strictly rated - reducing the useful information available.

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