Friday, October 16, 2009

UK Government abandons plans for mandatory web filtering

Just over a month ago the Independent on Sunday reported that:
The Home Office is drawing up plans for what, in effect, would be the first form of state intervention in Britain in relation to the internet.

British ISPs would face heavy fines for failing to block sites containing images of child sexual abuse, according to the contents of a leaked Home Office document seen by The Independent on Sunday...

The leaked Home Office letter says a clause in the Police, Crime and Private Security Bill in the Queen's Speech would "compel domestic ISPs to implement the blocking of illegal images of child sexual abuse".
This was far from new policy - since 2006 the Home Office has consistently said that it would legislate for mandatory filters unless ISPs "voluntarily" filtered against the IWF blacklist. But according to The Register, it has now rather abruptly changed its position:
The government has abandoned its long-standing pledge to force 100 per cent of internet providers to block access to a list of child pornography websites.

The decision to drop the policy will be finalised at a meeting on Monday to be attended by internet industry representatives, children's charities and Alun Michael MP.

The former minister had aimed to pressurise small ISPs to implement the Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) blacklist with the threat of legislation, but the Home Office has now backed down. A lobbying campaign argued costs were too high for small companies to bear and that the blocking technology can be easily circumvented by determined paedophiles.
Instead the Home Office will attempt to use consumer pressure to encourage the remaining ISPs to filter:
For the first time the IWF will publish the list of ISPs who are certified as having implemented its blacklist. "Hopefully consumer and public pressure will encourage the ISPs who aren't on the list to comply," said Carr. A Home Office spokesman said: "We will continue to urge ISPs to implement blocking, and ask consumers to check with their suppliers that they have done so. The Government recognises the work done by most of the internet industry to tackle this problem."
Why the about-face? One factor may have been that the Home Office didn't enjoy wide support for its plans even amongst official bodies. The Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) recently said that he was not convinced of the need to introduce mandatory filtering, while apComms had come out strongly against mandatory web filters. Key to both views was the recognition (which was slow in dawning at the Home Office) that web filters are increasingly irrelevant to the wider problem. Or, as The Register put it:
One likely factor in the softening of stance of both the government and charities is the fact that on the frontline of online child protection, websites carrying images of abuse are no longer seen as a priority.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is focussed on paedophile peer to peer networks as they are much more likely to carry recent images, potentially indicating ongoing abuse. The IWF's website blocking is seen as yesterday's issue.
Coincidentally, Germany is also having second thoughts about mandatory filtering, with post-election negotiations for a new coalition government featuring demands that the proposed filtering system be halted.

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