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.
The government's volte-face is likely to anger some child protection campaigners. In 2006 it promised 100 per cent of internet connections would be filtered, either voluntarily or through legislation - a committment reaffirmed by crime minister Vernon Coaker this March.
As recently as September it was reported officials were preparing legislation for November's Queen's Speech. The Home Office's new position however is that 98.6 per cent of connections are filtered, and that figure is satisfactory.
"The Government has been considering whether legislation was needed, but having reached the figure stated by Ofcom, feels that at present legislation would not be required as the efforts made by industry have been effective in reaching this figure," a spokesman said.
Ofcom was asked by officials to survey the internet industry for use of the IWF blacklist. The government had previously claimed 95 per cent of connections were filtered, but it was thought a very rough estimate.
As a result of the increased coverage statistic, children's charities have dropped their campaign for laws to force every single ISP to filter web access.
"I support the Home Office's decision because the situation is now substantially different," said John Carr, the secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety.
"Things are better than we thought."
He said the charities' objective remains 100 per cent coverage and that the Home Office has promised to keep the situation under review.
The charities haven't come away from IWF talks at the Home Office empty-handed. 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."
One likely factor in the softening of stance by 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.
Nevertheless, the escape from the brink of new legislation stands as a victory for the internet industry, whose representatives declined to comment ahead of Monday's meeting.
As the battle over potential legislation raged earlier this year, however, they said the government's pledge was ill thought out and politically motivated. Such criticisms of internet policy making - though they won't now be expressed - are unlikely to be moderated by backtracking on what a series of ministers insisted was an essential measure. ®