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Arguments over just how successful government attempts have been in keeping child porn off the internet may be little more than a storm in a teacup – but such discussions highlight a shift in the way indecent material may be blocked in future.

The story begins with a shocking claim from internet filtering company, Watchdog International, that "known illegal content is not blocked by 88 per cent of UK ISPs". Since the Home Office recently abandoned plans to bring filtering up from a claimed 98.6 per cent of connections to 100 per cent by passing a law that would make filtering mandatory, this is at first sight a staggering discrepancy.

In fact, the difference is far slighter than it appears. The figure published by government is for consumer connections, of which the vast majority are handled by a very small number of ISPs. The count provided by Watchdog adds in ISPs who specialise in handling B2B connections.

There are an estimated 400 such ISP’s and the majority of these appear not to make use of the blocklist provided by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) to prevent users from accessing indecent content.

This explains why Watchdog found such a high proportion of ISP’s not blocking illegal content. However, industry sources suggest that once these connections are factored in, the government figure for blocked connections is still 96.9% of all connections. These will include SME’s and SOHO set-ups, as well as larger enterprises. It is therefore likely that some of these connections will achieve de facto blocking of most illicit internet content by applying other net filtering packages, such as Net Nanny, at a corporate level.

The exact figure for Business-to-Business (B2B) connections is not available. According to a spokeswoman for Ofcom, this is because they were asked by government to look exclusively at Business-to-Consumer (B2C) connections – and not B2B. There is therefore room for the block figure to vary slightly from that published.

The difference between the two figures may be spun, according to taste, as the non-blocked connection level being double what was previously thought: or that the real figure is very small, and not significantly larger than the very small figure that it was previously believed to be.

The most significant aspect to this story may be the growing role of Watchdog International in patrolling the UK internet. Their first claim to fame is as suppliers of the routing protocol filtering system – Netclean Whitebox - used by the New Zealand government.

They have argued strongly in the past that their model of filtering is superior to all others on the market and, unlike the model currently adopted by UK ISP’s, it is an approach that small ISP’s can tap into without any significant investment in their own infrastructure.

Speaking to El Reg, Peter Milford, UK Country Manager of Watchdog International explained: "the Netclean solution uses the IWF’s blocklist – so is 100% compatible with existing UK initiatives. It sits offline from the ISP’s main server, and only kicks into action when a blocked URL is identified: otherwise, the end user links directly to the internet through their ISP as usual."

This business model will undoubtedly be attractive to those ISP’s wishing to make use of the IWF blocklist – but unable to do so because of the costs involved. It also adds pressure to any ISP’s holding out from joining up for other reasons.

In the longer term, the Watchdog International solution may prove attractive to other ISP’s who currently incorporate the IWF blocklist into their own. This suggests that those keeping an eye on the evolution of internet blocking in the UK should now keep tabs on the Watchdog model as well as the IWF one.

At present, they achieve almost exactly the same end result, and there is very little difference for the end user in practice. However, it would not be surprising if a company whose focus is on the commercial exploitation of filtering products does not in time develop functionality that goes some way beyond that developed by an industry-supported body created for the sole purpose of regulating the flow of certain types of unlawful material. ®

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