Internet censorship. Clean up Internet's porn showing

A recent deluge of sensationalist newspaper headlines has brought the heated arguments over the control of material available on the Internet to the boil.

Headlines such as: "Stop these companies peddling filth on the Internet" and "These men are not paedophiles: they are Internet abusers" and the articles that follow them have increased concern about what is available on-line.

The most inflammatory was a recent article in the Observer attacking the UK's largest Internet service provider (ISP), Demon Internet, for refusing to comply with the Metropolitan Police's request to all UK ISPs that they prohibit access to over a hundred Usenet newsgroups said to contain illegal pornographic material.

The storm of protest from the Internet industry which followed the Observer article led to a key meeting on 9 September between the fledgling Internet Developers Association (IDA) – a trade body representing various companies with interests in the Internet, New Scotland Yard's Club and Vice Squad, the press (including the Observer) and the Internet Service Providers Association (Ispa) – which represents UK ISPs. The meeting was an attempt to bring all interested parties together to discuss ways of tackling the problems of controlling material on the Internet.

The problems are both practical and legal. The practical difficulty comes from the nature of the Internet as an independent and highly flexible international interconnection of computer networks.

Almost anyone can send and distribute material throughout the world using a variety of different services and software, whether email, newsgroups or the World Wide Web.

Constantly updated, and with a huge volume of material, the newsgroups are particularly difficult to monitor and control. One of the major problems is an effect that is known as "displacement". If you ban a particular newsgroup, material which would have been posted to it will simply be posted elsewhere – which can make things worse. Often quoted is the example of a ban on certain pornographic newsgroups in the US with the material re-appearing on a Disney newsgroup – making it more likely that children would see it.

The legal arguments have centred on who should be responsible for the material appearing on the Internet. People who actually post material can be difficult to trace or control – leaving the ISPs as the most obvious parties to be held responsible for what people can access from their sites.

But the ISPs have always claimed they are just common carriers and should be no more responsible than BT or the Post Office are for the material they carry, though it can be argued that ISPs should be held liable for material in a similar way to broadcasters or publishers.

Recent amendments to some of the obscenity legislation in this country could allow ISPs to be successfully prosecuted for material they are currently making available.

But ISPs fall somewhere between the extremes of a postal service and a broadcaster, and a specific regulatory framework needs to be devised specifically for the industry.

This issue goes further than the control of obviously illegal material. The UK media is highly regulated and the codes and controls of, for example, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) for television or the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (Icstis) for premium-rate phone services are just as important as the general law in regulating day-to-day content.

The ITC and Icstis have both issued policy statements in the debate over Internet regulation but, along with Ispa and the IDA, have been unwilling to take on a wide-ranging regulatory responsibility.

Discussion at the IDA meeting at least confirmed that no other country has solved these problems, although a number of initiatives, often inconsistent with one another, are being taken. In Holland a hotline system is being introduced to help to identify where illegal material is being carried, but this will not cover overseas material.

In Singapore, all Internet users must channel their requests through proxy servers which block access to certain sites. The expense and access delays caused make it unlikely that larger territories will adopt such an approach, but other technical solutions, like the PICS content-labelling scheme, Net Nanny screening software for browsers, or BT's content-cleared scheme will be useful.

Hopefully, the IDA meeting will allow the UK industry to begin to develop its own regulatory framework for the Internet. It must be formulated by those who understand and recognise the unique technological and legal nature of the media in a sensible and practical manner, not as a result of sensational headlines.