Howard's Way

Today, I was invited to meeting called by Opposition leader, Michael Howard (MP) at Conservative Central Office, to examine the issues surrounding the protection of children on the Internet.

Chaired by Theresa May (MP) the gathering included the ‘usual suspects’, John Carr, from the Internet Watch Foundation, several MPs, ISPs, Telco’s, Police and representative’s from children’s groups, all confronted with a grave problem that defies every attempt to legislate it out of existence.

Michael Howard opened the meeting with a short speech that congratulated the Government for establishing an Internet Task Force in 2001 and paid tribute to the work of the National Hi-tech Crime Unit and what he described as the responsible example set by the UK’s own Internet industries in fighting paedophile behaviour. However, Howard expressed his dismay at the “Terrifying growth of child pornography”, which he said represents “A terrible stain on our society.”

“We need”, says Michael Howard, “To investigate whether the industry is doing everything it can to tackle the problem. “I don’t “, said the Leader of the Opposition, “want to follow the route of some countries, where Internet censorship is imposed by a state-controlled central (proxy) server but as an industry, we do need to constantly explore new ways to stop child pornography making its way onto computer screens.”

The fact that the Opposition are now actively seeking opinions on the connection between paedophilia and the a wider socio-economic consequences of serious and organised crime on the Internet has to be good news and Theresa May commented that a real challenge lies in determining what the position of the state should be in respect to content. While Government shouldn’t be indifferent to the dangers presented by the World Wide Web, it’s unclear what its role should be in what is increasingly a ‘nanny society’ and there is a thin line between a ‘laudable’ intention to address a serious criminal challenge and a ‘laughable’ consequence of any programme or legislation that misses the mark.

What appears clear from such a meeting is that existing legislation, such as the ‘Obscene Publications Act’, might be a useful tool against Lady Chatterley’s Lover but has little or no relevance in a society where the existence of ‘depraved and corrupting’ images are an unpleasant and increasingly pervasive fact of life. One imaginative suggestion was to rewrite the Act to embrace minors and not adults, which would appear to solve the problem at a stroke but the Shadow Attorney General pointed out that this would raise The sword of Damocles” over the heads of ISPs or even parents and would be very difficult in practise.

“Perhaps”, said Tim Loughton (MP), stressing the need for greater cooperation from the United States “We should re-classify such crimes as terrorism against children” but he concurred like his Shadow ministerial colleague, Jim Paice (MP) that the exploitation of children is only one manifestation of a much wider problem that embraces many different examples of serious and organised crime on the Internet.

Was anything achieved then in a meeting that was looking for answers rather than objections from industry? Without a doubt, ISPs, telcos such as BT and NTL and even Microsoft, are investing heavily and working hard to find practical solutions to better protect society’s most vulnerable surfers but drawing the analogy with seatbelt legislation, Tim Loughton pointed-out that better domestic education holds much of the answer and in the absence of any ‘magic bullet’ and with the source of the problem often lying with the Americans with their first amendment freedom of speech or with the Russians with little or no framework of legislation, there is very little that Britain can achieve alone, other than offer an example of moral leadership and hope that others follow.

After all is said and done then a hell of a lot more is said than done but that is, after all, the story of politics and the Internet.


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