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Maria Miller summons web giants for filtering confab

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The UK government wants the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft to do more to stop child-abuse images, hate speech and other offensive material appearing on their websites.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller has summoned a number of mobile, web and telecoms companies to a meeting to discuss how the tech titans can halt the spread of harmful stuff online.

The move comes after Britain's three biggest telcos BSkyB, Virgin Media and BT - keen to swerve regulatory intervention - agreed to filter content at a network level for the first time despite many months of lobbying against the government's filtering plans, which many in the industry had described as flawed.

Now Miller has set her sights on big web players such as Google.

Her department said that the cabinet minister had "written to ISPs, search engines, mobile operators and social media companies, asking they attend a summit this month to discuss the issue and work out what more can be done".

The meeting will take place on 17 June.

Miller, in her letter, said that "recent horrific events" such as the savage murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich had "highlighted the widespread public concern over the proliferation of, and easy access to, harmful content on the internet".

The minister added:

Whether these concerns focus on access to illegal pornographic content, the proliferation of extremist material which might incite racial or religious hatred, or the ongoing battle against online copyright theft, a common question emerges: what more can be done to prevent offensive online content potentially causing harm?

It is clear that dangerous, highly offensive, unlawful and illegal material is available through basic search functions and I believe that many popular search engines, websites and ISPs could do more to prevent the dissemination of such material.

The answers are not easy ones but the complexity of dealing with harmful online content is not an acceptable reason for the current situation to persist. Greater efforts need to be made to prevent the uploading, downloading and sharing of harmful material.

Effective technological solutions have to be developed – and deployed – to minimise the harm done to businesses and consumers.

Google, Facebook, BT and other big names were told that they had "serious public responsibilities", and Miller demanded that more needed to be done to block harmful content from being published.

Recent crimes involving child-abuse images have led to calls for internet firms to do more to prevent such material being obtained online.

The Internet Watch Foundation, which maintains a blacklist to help web companies filter out nasty images, recently said: "The UK internet industry is extremely quick and nimble at tackling what is possibly the most horrendous images and videos available on the internet but there is always more to be done."

In response to Miller's letter, a Facebook spokesman told The Register that the company would be attending the meeting and added that it was "looking forward to explaining the work they do to combat this issue".

And Nicholas Lansman, secretary-general of the Internet Services Providers' Association, told us this morning:

THe industry shares the government’s aims of making the online experience safer and has taken several steps to bring this about. We look forward to explaining this to government as they need to fully understand and appreciate what is already being done by industry to get the right policies in place.

"Illegal content is dealt with using established mechanisms. For content that is not illegal, industry has moved to make filtering tools more widely available to their customers, however filtering is only one part of the solution alongside education," he added. ®

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