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Net users must take a greater role in combating unlawful and illegal online content by reporting dodgy material to watchdogs, according to a study from the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) published yesterday. The study, conducted by ICM Research, highlights widespread public confusion about UK Net governance.

More than one in eight respondents (13 per cent) said that they would do nothing if they found something on the Internet that they thought was illegal. Men were more than three times more likely to do nothing about illegal content than women.

More than one in five people (21 per cent) said they would show unlawful content to other people. In the case of illegal material this is a serious offence in itself.

Nearly half the respondents said they'd report suspicious content to their ISP. ISPs will act on such information, but the ISPA argues its members are not the most appropriate authority since they "are not qualified, sufficiently authorised or resourced to decide on the legal status of all the material on the Internet".

Only 29 per cent of respondents correctly recognised the government or judiciary as the legitimate authorities to make decisions about the legal status of online content. Instances of images depicting child abuse, UK hosted material that potentially breaches the Obscene Publications Act and UK hosted criminally racist material should be referred to the Internet Watch Foundation.

According to the IWF, less than one per cent of illegal images reported to it were hosted on UK servers. This is a sign of the success of the UK Internet Industry's Self-Regulatory 'Notice and Takedown' Procedure, according to the ISPA.

"The majority of illegal content on the Internet originates from the US and Eastern Europe. The Internet industry, law enforcement agencies and governments in these territories should take action similar to the UK to limit access to illegal content," said Jessica Hendrie-Liaño, chair of the ISPA Council.

Unlawful content

Unlawful content is not just limited to child pornography. It also includes less obvious material such as instances of defamation, infringement of copyright and other intellectual property rights, and criminally racist or sexist content. Working out the legal status or otherwise of such content is very difficult for the Internet industry, ISPA argues.

Four years ago, Demon Internet was forced to pay scientist Dr Laurence Godfrey £15,000 after he sued it for failing to remove defamatory postings on newsgroups it hosted. The ISP was obliged to apologise to Dr Godfrey, as well as paying his legal costs.

An ISPA spokesman said the case prompted UK ISPs to tighten up "notice and takedown" procedures. UK ISPs are successfully taking responsibility for removing illegal content hosted on their system once they have "actual knowledge" that the materials are illegal, according to the ISPA.

ISPA wants clearer government guidance on the issue which it believes UK e-commerce regulations that came into force in August 2002 fail to cover.

Hendrie-Liaño said: "The current self-regulatory approach has produced exceptional results when dealing with child pornography. However, cases involving other forms of unlawful content, such as infringements of copyright, are legally complex, less clear-cut and therefore more difficult for ISPs to resolve. ISPA believes that as a matter of priority, the government should assist the UK Internet industry to create a universal procedure for establishing the illegality of material, and the notification of such content to ISPs by a designated authority." ®

Related stories

Net blamed for massive increase in child porn
Complaints? About ISPs? Surely not!
ISPs welcome UK Net libel review
Demon coughs up damages in Godfrey libel case

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