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Porn, abuse, depravity - and how they plan to stop it

Part one: Strangling content

The essential guide to IT transformation

But this takes the organisation into greyer territory. Its work on child abuse is clearly defined, almost beyond controversy, and has gained the IWF a reputation as an agency for good. It is censorship, certainly, but it's not the sort of censorship that attracts much criticism.

Extreme porn might be a harder pill to swallow. Definitions are less clear, and the existence of several organised campaigns on this subject suggests it may be a much hotter political potato.

The ad hoc and self-regulatory nature of internet policing may be seen in the miscellany of other organisations that in one way or another are regulating content. The IWF is a self-regulatory body with charitable status working closely with government, and government agencies such as the police. But it is not of the government.

Then there is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a non-statutory alliance of agencies, media owners and advertisers which keeps an eye on advertising content both on- and off-line. Concern about online claims that go beyond simple advertising has led to the formation of the Digital Media Group, which will be concerned with misleading claims and pricing.

On the content side, the Press Complaints Commission regulates press content through its code of practice, and already covers newspaper websites in its remit. It recently added audio-visual content, and there are suggestions that it would like to extend its brief to web-only news sites.

Films are regulated via the British Board for Film Classification (BBFC), which earlier this year extended its Black Card classification system to online films. That may in time prove critical in the light of new legislation on extreme porn: a controversial film with black card attached will be safe to own. Identical material without black card may attract a criminal prosecution.

Then there is Ofcom, a statutory organisation charged with upholding the broadcasting code, and dealing with complaints about possible breaches. Rumours abound that it might like a more formal internet remit - government has frequently mooted such a role. But the official line appears to be 'no thanks'.

The one organisation that does not appear to play much of a role in formal policing of net content is, strange but true, the police. But police will respond to specific complaints, and in the last few years, two notorious cases have demonstrated how the police can and will put pressure on websites for reasons of public order.

First was thinkofthechildren.co.uk, a spoof website that reacted to perceived paranoia over paedophiles by outlining the etiquette of forming a lynch mob. This was taken down, initially, after the Met had unofficial words with the host and suggested that the site "might" be construed as inciting violence. The site owner also claimed that the IWF had been complicit in this action - a claim that the IWF rejects.

Embarrassingly for the police, the site went straight back up, with a tart rejoinder that if the police thought any offence was being committed, they should deal with it through the proper channels. It still exists, mirrored here.

A similar incident arose in 2002 over the "Parking Clowns" website, which was the response of some residents in Canterbury to what they considered over-officious parking enforcement. The website included photos of parking attendants and this, the Police advised, together with the generally inflammatory nature of the site, could be deemed to be harassment amd again, possibly lead to violence.

"Parking Clowns" is no more. But these incidents seem few and far between - and despite assiduous attempts to elicit details of the police policing content, the Reg was unable to find much.

So is internet content largely safe? Have we reached the point where we can sit back and assume that what we have is what we get to keep?

The essential guide to IT transformation

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