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New web filter laws questioned by top child abuse cop

Home Office brewing pointless legislation?

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New laws reportedly planned for the Queen's Speech to force all internet providers to block access to child pornography websites have been questioned by Britain's top abuse investigator.

Jim Gamble, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), said the blacklist currently used to filter the vast majority of UK internet connections had been a "fabulous success".

However, he added he is unconvinced of the need for legislation to impose it on the remaining small and boutique ISPs who argue it is unaffordable and easily circumvented by determined paedophiles.

"The jury is out for me," Gamble told The Register in an interview at CEOP's Westminster HQ.

"I'm being honest on that. I'm not going to say to you that I'm 100 per cent behind legislation to make sure that we get every member of the industry to subscribe to this.

"I think we need to look at what's balanced and proportionate and what's absolutely necessary. I understand the frustration that small industry that's not focused in a particular direction may have with this."

Doubts over the value of new laws thus set Gamble against the Home Office, which committed to blanket URL blocking in 2006. Ministers missed their self-imposed deadline at the end of 2007, prompting public complaints from children's charities.

It was reported at the weekend that having failed to persuade small firms to voluntarily implement the Internet Watch Foundation blacklist, the government plans to announce legal powers at the State Opening of Parliament on 18 November, when the Queen lists the government's legislative programme.

The Home Office today declined to discuss its legislative plans, citing a policy of never commenting on leaked documents.

The Register understands officials working for the former minister Alun Michael are currently attempting to gather better figures on what proportion of internet connections are filtered before a final decision on whether to bring forward legislation is made. The Home Office has publicly used a figure of "over 95 per cent of consumer broadband connections", but it is thought a very rough estimate.

If it finds more than 99 per cent are now filtered, ministers might reasonably claim to have met their pledge to child protection charities.

At the frontline, web filtering is now viewed as a peripheral issue. Gamble agreed with the charities that filtering is useful, but added it was ineffective against "hardcore predators" who swap material over peer to peer networks and for whom "the internet has moved on".

"I believe filtering is good to avoid inadvertent access that will disturb or damage a young person, or deliberate novice access," Gamble said.

"A novice is somebody who's new to this - a new paedophile who wants to go out and find images."

Gamble confirmed he had "a degree of sympathy" with the position of industry bodies such as LINX, which has vocally opposed mandatory filtering on behalf of its members.

Malcolm Hutty, LINX's head of public affairs, said filtering was already implemented for virtually all consumer connections. "To any reasonable approximation this is already done," he said.

CEOP found last year only 7.5 per cent of child abuse material discovered by forensics officers came from commercial websites, and that the material tended to be older and more common. Gamble said organised criminals had virtually abandoned the business because of the risks. "To call what's left 'organised' is being generous," he said.

Meanwhile, material now exchanged via peer to peer networks is more frequently newer and less common, meaning the children pictured might be currently subject to abuse. CEOP's investigators will now focus on such public and private networks.

Gamble, a former intelligence chief in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was however keen to head off accusations of an attack on peer to peer technology itself. "We can't blame technology - it's people," he said.

"Peer to peer is a valuable resource for the online community. Our focus is on child protection." ®

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