Internet providers face child porn crackdown

Firms may be ordered to block abuse sites – but campaigners say move will be counterproductive

Internet service providers that fail to curb child pornography on the web would be criminalised in a crackdown to be introduced in the Queen's Speech this autumn.

The Home Office is drawing up plans for what, in effect, would be the first form of state intervention in Britain in relation to the internet.

British ISPs would face heavy fines for failing to block sites containing images of child sexual abuse, according to the contents of a leaked Home Office document seen by The Independent on Sunday.

The move would be welcomed by children's campaigners, but it has triggered concern in Whitehall that it is a "headline-grabbing gesture" that would penalise the wrong target while potentially weakening existing regulation of child pornography.

Figures show that 98.5 per cent of ISPs already take down or block illegal sites through the Internet Watch Foundation, a self-regulation body created in 1996 that monitors content and reports obscene images to police.

Opponents of the move say the IWF is "working well" and claim a new crackdown would force ISPs to deal with Scotland Yard, which has less experience of blocking websites, and in the process allow more illegal images to slip through the net.

Insiders also point out that the majority of hardcore pornographers swap obscene and illegal material between themselves through peer-to-peer file-sharing, which is more difficult to police. They say the new law would make little difference to that.

The NSPCC warned earlier this year that obscene material was being transmitted using file-sharing software.

The leaked Home Office letter says a clause in the Police, Crime and Private Security Bill in the Queen's Speech would "compel domestic ISPs to implement the blocking of illegal images of child sexual abuse".

The new laws would hand "police and local authorities powers they need to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities in tackling crime", the letter says. The Government has a "clear commitment" to prevent abuse on the internet, it adds.

There will be a four-week consultation with ISPs on the proposals, but insiders said the firms had not been informed about the proposed crackdown.

A Whitehall source said: "This is a gesture which will undermine the real work that is going on to tackle child porn abuse. The Internet Watch Foundation is already working to take down sites and people are getting arrested.

"Under the new law, ISPs will have to deal instead with Scotland Yard, who have less experience in this area, and the IWF will be undermined."

The IWF uses police guidelines to determine what constitutes illegal or obscene images. When illegal material is found, the IWF contacts the ISP hosting it and the content is taken down or blocked.

Material hosted in the UK is reported to the police, while content hosted abroad is blocked, making it near-impossible to track down through search engines.

Other countries use goverment controls to block illegal content on the internet. In Germany, the police directly monitor websites.