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Gov and ISPs clash over informal policing of net

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A row is brewing today between government and ISPs following suggestions that greater informal policing of internet content might be needed, along with a new self-regulatory body to carry out the task.

The proposal arose as Culture Minister Ed Vaizey spoke at the Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) 2010 Annual Report launch yesterday.

He praised the IWF and UK ISPs for having put in place a model for dealing with child abuse and criminally obscene material (the IWF's current remit) that was recognised around the world. Both he and Home Office Minister James Brokenshire indicated that they "liked the self-regulatory model" and very much hoped it would continue.

Vaizey also indicated that there might be scope in future to extend the IWF's methods – though not necessarily through the IWF – to cover other categories of material.

Vaizey did not specify the nature of material that he had in mind, or who would be responsible for setting up the new self-regulatory body. However, he is involved in ongoing discussions – with roundtables scheduled for the future – about an opt-in for adult content and possibly the blocking of some additional adult material. He is also involved in moves to encourage ISPs to further block unauthorised use of material under copyright.

His remarks – particularly the implied suggestion that a new body might be required – generated some concern among those who work in the internet industry.

Nicholas Lansman, secretary-general for the Internet Service Providers' Association spoke to The Register. He suggested that the issue was far more complex than the ministers appeared to understand. Lansman said: "They need to understand that there is a world of difference between blocking material that is generally agreed to be abhorrent and unlawful across the world, and blocking or policing where different regulatory regimes are in play.

"Government has to acknowledge that there is a range of legal and other factors in play over these issues – and a far wider debate, with evidence from experts, is needed."

Officials at both the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office were keen to play down any suggestion of a new initiative. A spokesman for the DCMS told us: "The IWF is an excellent good example of self-regulation and could serve as a model for industry-led approaches in other areas.

"The government is continuing to work with industry to address the concerns people have around privacy online as well as how to help parents protect their children from harmful and inappropriate content."

He rejected suggestions that the minister was specifically calling for a new body. A spokesman for the Home Office added that Brokenshire's comments related to the principle of self-regulation, but that no suggestion was being put forward at this time for any new body, or for a broadening of the remit of the IWF.

Any attempt to expand the remit of the IWF would have to be considered carefully by the IWF Board and the internet industry, which funds it. In the past, the IWF has said that it is in a stronger position if it sticks to its core areas and expanding out into more controversial topics could undermine some of the work it has done to date.

This is not the first time that government has suggested that the IWF could act as a panacea for other social ills. In the past, former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith expressed a brief interest in asking the IWF to focus on terror material. The call was quietly dropped. ®

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