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Britain looks to export net censorship model to Europe

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Digital Britain The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a British success story - and one that our government would dearly like to export overseas. Although it would rather not pay for it, if it can possibly avoid doing so.

That is the somewhat Johnny Bullish assessment of how we regulate the internet here in dear old Blighty, taken from the pages of Lord Carter's report on "Digital Britain" (pdf). It contains, as most such reports do, lavish praise for the gallant souls slaving away at the IWF - combined with little obvious understanding of the issues involved.

First the praise. According to Lord Carter's report, "the Internet Watch Foundation and the ‘notice and take down’ system on Internet sites is widely regarded internationally as a model." This is true as far as it goes - but possibly overlooks the fact that as one of the first such organisations into the fray, other jurisdictions have been in mad catch-up mode ever since.

However, there is a fly in the ointment: "The IWF’s current income includes a contribution from the EU Safer Internet 66 Action Plan with the bulk being derived from voluntary membership subscriptions.

"This voluntary structure means that there is no certainty that the level of funding received now from the EU or from its membership will continue at this level in the future. In the current economic climate a voluntary funding base carries with it increased uncertainty over funding."

So, perhaps the current model is not quite as brilliant as it is cracked up to be?

Fear not: "the Government is challenging the industry to ensure that it has one". Challenging, that is, as in "if the regulation of criminal content is not adequately funded by industry, Government would need to consider statutory intervention".

So it’s a good model - except when it comes to funding.

However, as the report is keen to repeat, "the IWF has also been a model for international hotlines for reporting child abuse material, especially across the EU. Some operators already use its list of illegal sites internationally. Since most child abuse material originates outside the EU, there is a case for its operations to cover at least the whole of the EU.

"We will therefore explore with the IWF and the European Commission the scope for a pan-European model with commensurate funding."

There's the land grab: if government can obtain sufficient funding both from industry and the EU, our loveable, cuddly British IWF could soon be patrolling the murkier backwaters of the European internet too.

This would be a step-change to the operation that the IWF currently runs, given both the number of countries involved and the subtle differences in law between states in terms of what is criminal to view.

It also overlooks a very large obstacle. The IWF is praised internationally for its work and its achievement in bringing down the proportion of child abuse sites hosted within the UK to 1% of the total accessed.

That is a serious success story that is not without its critics. Issues that we have reported on previously include the lack of judicial involvement in the process: the failure to notify site owners, and overall, a typically British lack of legislative grounding for the operation. It is a fudge that has worked: and it has been considered a model for other countries because for some time it has been the main - if not the only - game in town.

Over the last year, this picture has been changing rapidly, with debates in several EU states, including Belgium, Germany and Denmark as to how the internet should be regulated. Debate has focused around issues of control and the level of government involvement in the eventual solution. In Germany, a proposal for an IWF lookalike has been roundly rebuffed in favour of a model with greater judicial oversight.

So full marks to Lord Carter for delivering praise where praise is due: but "nuls points" for this blatant attempt to foist a British model on everyone else in Europe without first checking that it fits their own concerns. ®

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