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IWF reforms could pave way for UK net censorship

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Analysis By the end of 2007, the Home Office intends that all ISPs "offering broadband internet connectivity to the UK public" will have implemented systems for content blocking, primarily intended to block access to pornographic images of children, which are illegal to view or possess in the UK.

Vernon Coaker, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, noted in an answer to a Parliamentary question in June that if the target is not achieved the government might consider legislation.

No one in the industry can even guess at how much it will cost ISPs overall, and it is not even entirely clear what's meant by "public".

If you are, for example, a small ISP nominally reselling BT's DSL service as part of a consultancy service and most of your 500 customers are businesses but those companies request that you also supply lines to the homes of directors and staff, are you offering broadband to the public?

Even the Home Office doesn't seem entirely sure. A spokesman says only: "It's important that we get the definition right."p>

At the heart of the content blocking plan is the ten-year-old industry self-regulator Internet Watch Foundation, which supplies members – formerly just ISPs and now also mobile network operators, content providers, and search engines such as Google and Yahoo! – with the list of sites to be blocked. The list, for which members pay £500, £2,000, or £5,000 a year, is derived by investigating reports from the public.

Based on recommendations in an unpublished report seen by The Register, which the IWF commissioned from Julia Unwin, OBE, a former charity commissioner, the IWF is considering revising its governance structure to become more independent of the industry that created it.

The IWF was founded in 1996 as ISPs' response to the threat of regulation. Although the IWF has at various times considered expanding the range of material it recommends for removal from British servers, it is not known to have gone beyond the illegal material it lists in its remit. Currently, this is: "child abuse images" hosted anywhere in the world, and also incitement to racial hatred and obscenity if hosted in the UK.

Content with content blocking

Peter Robbins, the IWF's executive director, notes, however: "It's very rare for [the latter] to be hosted in the UK." And, he says, "There are always going to be debates about what is illegal content on the internet, but I think there is a clear understanding among people in the know, including on our board. That remit is paramount. Taking down child abuse images is very clear. It's illegal around the world, and there doesn't seem to be much dispute about what the definition of a child abuse image is. That's why it's successful."

Everyone quoted here is firmly against child abuse. Nonetheless, issues such as the IWF's accountability and the Home Office's desire for universal content blocking excite some controversy.

Official estimates are that 80 to 90 per cent of British subscribers are already behind content blocking systems such as British Telecom's Cleanfeed, a figure Robbins says was calculated by "another organisation" he declines to name. But raising that to 100 per cent is more complicated than "let them eat Cleanfeed".

Kevin Hones, co-founder of Watchfront, a specialist ISP, provides bonded channels to improve upstream bandwidth for small businesses hosting their own servers, some of those in individual homes. Is that public? "I would hate to have to trim customers," says Hones.

He thinks that although the future of consumer offerings is likely to be the cheap, filtered standard product, the top-level transit providers who shift data should remain exempt.

"I hope they never get involved in content filtering, because that's breaking the internet."

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