ISPs are battling proposals by officials in Brussels that would force them to block access to child pornography, arguing that such systems only hide the problem.
The European Commission has drafted new laws that will be voted on by the European Parliament next month. The technical solutions envisaged are broadly based on arrangements in the UK, where all major ISPs block access to child abuse websites named on a list maintained by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
Although voluntary, the British system is not without controversy, and EuroISPA, the European ISP trade association, is lobbying MEPs to reject the move to enforce it across the bloc.
If the laws are passed as proposed, the UK government will get powers to force the small ISPs who do not use the IWF blocklist – who serve less than 2 per cent of British internet users – to fall into line. Last year the Home Office abandoned a pledge to enforce 100 per cent compliance, however.
ISPs have long held that censorship at network level does not tackle either the producers of child pornography, or its hardcore consumers – who can easily circumvent the technical restrictions. Only removal at the source – the hosting provider – really addresses the problem, they argue.
Malcolm Hutty, the President of EuroISPA, said: "In order to make the Directive on child sexual exploitation as strong as possible, emphasis must be placed on making swift notice and takedown of child sexual abuse material focused and effective.
"Blocking, as an inefficient measure, should be avoided. Law enforcement authorities' procedures for rapid communication to internet hosting providers of such illegal material must be reviewed and bottlenecks eliminated."
Charities have however argued that filtering reduces the risk of abuse by preventing internet users from being accidentally exposed to child pornography.
Front-line law enforcement agencies such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) have in recent years diverted their focus from websites to peer-to-peer networks, which would not be affected by universal web filtering. ®