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The European Union wants new laws that would grant national governments the power to force ISPs to block child pornography.

The move would enable the Home Office to impose filtering technology on small ISPs who say they cannot afford it, or argue it is ineffective.

Article 18 of the proposal for an EU framework decision on "combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography", states: "Each Member State shall take the necessary measures to enable the competent judicial or police authorities to order or similarly obtain the blocking of access by internet users to internet pages containing or disseminating child pornography, subject to adequate safeguards."

Once adopted, an EU framework decision obliges member states to bring national law in line with its provisions.

Currently in the UK, all the major ISPs use the child pornography blocklist curated by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). A BT-developed system called Cleanfeed checks IP addresses against the list and blocks users from accessing their content.

Last month, child protection charities complained that some 700,000 internet connections in the UK served by small ISPs were still able to access material on the IWF blocklist. They pointed out that in 2006 the Home Office had pledged that it would tell all providers to implement filters by the end of 2007.

However, small ISPs such as Zen have so far resisted government pressure to filter voluntarily. They cite the expense of new hardware needed to run the system. They also argue minimal technical knowledge is required to circumvent the "politically motivated" IWF blocklist and that it has no effect on the trade in images of abuse.

The NSPCC believes the reduced chance of accidental exposure to child pornography via a filtered internet connection reduces the risk of offending. "We know from our work with offenders that it can often start with an accidental exposure and curiosity," policy advisor Zoe Hilton said recently.

Today, Malcolm Hutty, president of EuroISPA, which represents ISPs from across Europe at the EU, called on the Council to drop proposals for filtering to be made compulsory, arguing it would "increase risks to the security, resilience and interoperability of the internet".

"For technical reasons, blocking simply cannot provide the level of protection that is necessary, and simple morality demands that we take strong collective action to get child pornography removed from the Internet, rather than simply hiding behind national firewalls," he added.

A Home Office spokesman refused to describe the UK's policy towards the proposal. "We're not going to discuss this until the meeting of the Council of Ministers," he said.

Ministers from each member state attend the Council to make policy decisions for the EU. Justice and Home Affairs ministers are due to meet on Monday, when it will discuss combating the sexual exploitation of children. Framework decisions require unanimous approval.

The UK has been at the vanguard of internet filtering against child pornography in Europe. Cleanfeed launched in 2004, while Germany announced plans to create its own IWF-style blocklist only this January. ®

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