ISPs have rejected a call by childrens' charities to implement the government's approved blocklist for images of child sexual abuse, because the list does not stop anyone who wants to accessing such material.
On Monday a coalition including the NSPCC and Barnardo's sounded warnings that 700,000 homes could access websites hosting images of abuse because small ISPs do not filter their networks. The charities aimed to put pressure on the government to force them to implement the Internet Watch Foundation's blocklist, pointing out that in 2006 ministers said all providers should do so by the end of 2007.
Small ISPs have resisted filtering their networks for several years on economic and principle grounds. On Tuesday Malcolm Hutty, policy chief Linx, a peering cooperative used by many small ISPs, reiterated the objections. "Especially at the moment, it would mean spending a lot of money on something that simply does not work," he said. "The system is politically motivated."
The IWF acknowledges that paedophiles with minimal technical knowledge are able to circumvent its censorship. Whether their ISP has implemented the IWF blocklist, therefore, has no impact on their ability to access websites distributing child abuse images. Rather, the IWF agrees, the blocklist protects average web users with no interest in such material from accidental exposure.
About 95 per cent of UK internet users are thus shielded from the darkest corners of the web by their ISP. The rest are not. In either case, paedophiles remain able to access images of child abuse over the web. In that light the NSPCC's assertion this week that "allowing this loophole helps feed the appalling trade in images featuring real children being seriously sexually assaulted" demands examination.
Zoe Hilton, the NSPCC's policy adviser, told The Register that despite the simple technical counter-measures available to paedophiles, filtering websites was valuable. "There's a whole spectrum of offending," she said. "Clearly, we're not going to stop determined paedophiles, but we know from our work with offenders that it can often start with an accidental exposure and curiosity. There's a huge element of opportunism to a lot the commercial sites."
"It's probably difficult for Register readers to believe, but lots of these people would never be able to use an overseas proxy [to circumvent the IWF blocklist].
Hilton said that the objections to filtering raised to the NSPCC by small ISPs had been cost-based rather than function-based until now. She recognised that use of peer-to-peer networks and other internet technologies by paedophiles was also of great concern, but said their availability did not mean web filtering was ineffective.
As pressure on small ISPs to filter the traffic entering their networks increased, a New Zealand ISP hoped to take advantage.
Peter Mancer, managing director of Watchdog Internet, said the alleged expense of implementing cleanfeed was no excuse. His firm is acting as UK distributor of Netclean, a filtering technology developed in Sweden.
Watchdog is pushing Netclean as a cheaper alternative to Cleanfeed, the BT-developed filtering system used by all the major ISPs. "The beauty of what we offer is it can be extremely cost effective to implement," Mancer said. Netclean allows filtering to take place outside ISPs' networks, so several can use the same equipment.
Business provider Talk Internet has become the first UK customer for the system, filtering traffic based on the same IWF blocklist used by Cleanfeed. Netclean is also being used by more than a dozen ISPs in the ongoing controversial internet filtering trials in Australia, where the government wants to providers to block much more than just child abuse material.
"It's not easy to put a figure on return on investment, but more and more ISPs are aware of their social responsibility," said Mancer, adding that the recent furore over the blocking of the whole of Wikipedia by the IWF and Cleanfeed would not have affected providers using Netclean, because it does not rely on proxying.
Clearly, ministers are extemely sensitive to criticism of their policies on child abuse. The Home Office said the IWF blocklist was a "considerable success" and that it will continue to consider what further action might be needed.
It falls to small ISPs to judge what action, if any, might be forthcoming, and whether it would be cheaper to implement restrictions they view as pointless than to continue resisting. ®