Internet Regulation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 4th June 2008.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 7:32 pm, 4th June 2008

I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his input. He is right that we should show a lead in the world. We have an opportunity to try to put something straight and I hope that the rest of my contribution will explain how and where that should happen.

One reason that was given for the Government's decision not to regulate content at the time was that the general law of the UK applies to the internet. A declaration, which seems slightly naive in retrospect, was made that,

"what is illegal off-line is illegal online".

However, the real difficulty with the internet is that what is illegal and enforced in one place often bears little relation to what is illegal and enforced in another.

The existing law applies to websites that are hosted here, which means, for instance, that an online pharmacy hosted in the UK will need to comply with the same rules by which a high street pharmacy abides. However, those that are outside our jurisdiction will be free to continue as they wish. That is why we see websites based in the South Pacific, often with misleading "dot co dot uk" addresses, selling prescription drugs without the normal safeguards.

Alongside the general law, internet service providers, which are not required to have a licence to operate in the UK, have a self-regulatory regime for content. The fulcrum for that is the Internet Watch Foundation, which provides a notification service of illegal content to ISPs under three headings: child sex abuse images hosted anywhere in the world; criminally obscene content hosted in the UK; and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK. The IWF has a hotline for members of the public and maintains a list of websites with material under those three headings that are potentially illegal. It instructs, albeit without sanction, the relevant host ISP to take down the website and refers details to the police. In the case of child abuse websites outside the UK, the IWF notifies the relevant national enforcement agencies where they are hosted.

It is important to note that although the IWF does not require ISPs to block content not hosted by them, some providers have undertaken to do this, such as BT, whose Cleanfeed programme blocks child abuse websites on the IWF list. The effect of that is to prevent BT customers from accessing such material, even when it is hosted outside the UK.

To return to the general law, the final facet that I should mention is the liability of ISPs. The e-commerce regulations of 2002 prevent liability for content unless, first, the ISP has been made aware of both its presence and its illegal or tortious nature and, secondly, the ISP is storing the information in some way, either through hosting or caching. As far as I am aware, the liability of ISPs for content has been tested only in a handful of defamation cases, and those only where the material had been hosted by the respective server in the UK.

That brief outline should make it clear that the regime for content—or, rather, the lack of a regime—leaves huge gaps. The most important and extensive of those is the fact that, for any material not hosted in the UK, including child abuse images, we are reliant on other countries being both prepared and able to shut down websites or specific pages. According to the IWF, less than 1 per cent. of potentially criminal content appearing online since 2003 has been hosted in the UK, so the general law and the self-regulatory approach reach only the tip of the iceberg. That is clearly not good enough. We must do far better.

The figures from the IWF are also interesting in that they show that around one fifth of the child abuse sites that it reports to other countries' regulatory agencies remain online for more than 50 days, and sometimes for up to 100 days, after being passed on. When we have the ability to block access to such sites, with programmes such as Cleanfeed, it is hard to understand why the Government have not been more demanding. Furthermore, as I have said, much of the material that would be illegal if hosted in the UK will be perfectly legal elsewhere. Many countries have far broader rights to freedom of speech and no prohibitions on inciting racial or religious hatred, and are far more lax when it comes to rules on obscenity.

The second limitation is that the IWF covers a narrow range of topics. There is no organisation concerned with general online content in the UK and, with billions of web pages worldwide and millions hosted in the UK, it is unrealistic to expect anything other than piecemeal control from UK Executive bodies with other priorities. Finally, the IWF and the general law are concerned only with what is illegal or tortious online, whereas many of my constituents have expressed concerns to me about material that is either harmful or offensive, such as that which my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon mentioned.

I would like to ask the Minister: how is it that we have heavily regulated content on TV, but we leave parents to police the internet and stand over their children while they use it? When it comes to illegal content at least, I would urge the Minister to place the responsibility on the ISPs. As the gatekeepers to the internet and, most importantly, being based in the UK, they are the obvious candidates to deal with such material. That is gradually being recognised across the world, with regulation in Australia and China and the Olivennes agreement in France.

Indeed, while the IWF system in the UK is cited by ISPs as a reason for not regulating them, it shows that the most effective way of tackling illegal content is to have service providers take it down and block it. With only a minute fraction of illegal content being hosted in the UK, any solution that is limited by our borders and jurisdiction is really no solution at all to the problems of the internet. The only thing we can really do is require ISPs to block that illegal content regardless of where it is hosted. If we do not do that, I ask the Minister, how can our efforts to tackle a host of crimes such as inciting religious or racial hatred possibly be taken seriously? If China and Australia can do it, why cannot we?

The objection that is often raised to that is that ISPs simply cannot filter or monitor content. In the light of that, it is interesting to note that network providers in France have undertaken to assess whether they will be able to implement such technology to tackle copyright infringement. But we need not be so burdensome to have an effective regime.

The IWF system of notification and takedown orders could form the basis of a broader system for tackling content, whereby ISPs would be required to block material in breach of the law that they were notified of. The Minister would no doubt ask how such a body could be resourced and funded, but I do not see that as an insurmountable problem. In negotiations between ISPs and the music industry, the rights holders are suggesting that they would take on policing and monitoring content.

While ISPs may not be responsible for producing and editing content that appears on their servers, they are the only ones with the power to deal with it, so why do the Government not force them to do so with a licensing regime? There has been movement from the Government on internet-based crimes such as grooming, which makes it bizarre that what would be illegal content in any other sphere is left unfettered simply because it appears online. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has also announced that ISPs will face regulation in 2009 unless they take action on copyright infringement, but that is too late—we needed it yesterday—and far too limited.

At the start of my speech, I mentioned that the Government decided during consideration of the last Communications Bill to exclude content from Ofcom's remit, and we have reaped what we sowed. The problem has grown since. With the possibility of a new communications Bill being introduced in the next Parliament, it is clear that we now have the technology to control content. The only remaining questions are whether we have the will power and the common sense.

Since Monday morning, when everyone working in public affairs suddenly realised that Parliament might still be relevant after the recess, my office has been inundated with queries about this topic, wondering what I would be calling for. Those people clearly recognise how important this matter is. Perhaps the Government, now that a Department has finally been found to respond to this debate, should do so too.

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Lee Maguire
Posted on 6 Jun 2008 12:21 am (Report this annotation)

"If China and Australia can do it, why cannot we?" It's good to see China's positive contributions to Internet regulation being recognised by the member.