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Govt clarifies ISP demands for adoption sites

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The government has been forced to clarify its prosecution threats against ISPs regarding illegal adoption Web sites after its initial noises were roundly condemned. Health minister John Hutton yesterday reacted to the twin babies adoption mess by saying that ISPs would be held responsible if they allowed people access to adoption sites that are illegal under UK law.

The knee-jerk reaction was quickly dismissed by the ISP association, which asked for "clarification on the removal of illegal Internet content". But once the Whitehall press machine had been cranked into action, it would seem that we had all misunderstood what Mr Hutton said.

Mr Hutton had quoted the 1976 Adoption Act, saying that "publishing an advertisement" offering adoption services by a company not approved by a local authority was an offence and would be dealt with in the criminal courts. The ISP Association pointed out that they don't have the right to decide what content is illegal and what is not. As such, they would need a court order to remove anything. Some (ourselves included) feared Mr Hutton was also intending that ISPs prevent UK residents from accessing such sites - along the lines of the France's decision to block any access to Yahoo! US auction site.

Mr Hutton now says he did not mean that ISPs actually had to check their servers for such content. No, that would be "completely unreasonable". Instead, if the Health Department found an illegal Web site, it would ask the ISP to shut it down. Quite why we should need "reforms" when this is exactly the system that is currently in operation is anyone's guess.

So what we have here is a government minister forced into giving a reaction on Internet adoption Web sites because the twin girls story had made it a big issue. He may or may not been misinterpreted by ISPs, who asked for clarification - and who can blame them considering recent government legislation? Then Mr Hutton has to save face and changes his story from "forging ahead with reforms" to simply "reminding ISPs of their obligations".

And all this in just under a day. Proof, if you needed it, that the Internet has become one of the most important issue of the day. ®

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