Internet (Extreme Images)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 18th May 2004.

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Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon 12:00 am, 18th May 2004

I congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on their contributions and on introducing an important debate. For all the internet's benefits, its darker and more frightening sides are becoming increasingly apparent. Many sections of the community are being victimised through this powerful medium in different ways. In order to address the varying yet connected ranges of extreme images, I shall briefly cover child pornography, obscene publications and websites that incite others to commit crimes that sometimes go beyond pornography towards outright terrorism.

Much work has gone into tackling child pornography on the internet through projects such as Operation Ore, and there have been results. The percentage of sites hosted in the UK that the Internet Watch Foundation reported as containing illegal images of children fell, as has been said, to 1 per cent. in 2003. Now the problem, to which I shall return, is what to do with the foreign sites. Operation Ore was a two-year investigation into internet paedophiles. Of 7,200 people identified by the investigation, 3,537 were suspects, 1,679 were charged and 1,230 were convicted—and that was a clampdown on just one site.

However, I have concerns about the delays that occurred during the investigation and its wider implications. Scotland Yard received the names of the 7,200 people in 2000, but my local experience is that the police in Cambridgeshire received the names of those identified in the county only in July 2002, and I suspect that there have been similar delays at other forces around the country. Can the Minister comment on those delays and explain what happened?

I am also concerned about whether the police can cope with their current resources. Are forces properly funded and do they have access to adequate IT specialists? As the hon. Member for Reading, West said, only three forces have units dedicated to investigating paedophile activity on the net. Could the Minister comment on how the police would cope if another 7,000 names were passed to Scotland Yard tomorrow?

Child pornography is not the only issue that must be addressed: pornography on the internet as a whole is in need of regulation. The murder of Jane Longhurst in March 2003 by a man who had downloaded hundreds of evil images before he strangled her has, as was movingly expressed by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion and for Reading, West, highlighted the issue. New methods of tackling obscene images on the web must be used, as several hon. Members have suggested.

For example, the banks and collection agents that allow people to pay to enter pornographic sites could cancel cards or make such transactions void; that possibility was well described by Judy Mallaber. Filters can be put in to computers, there must be more restrictions on unsolicited commercial e-mails and spam, and search engines could be restricted so as not to trigger such obscene sites. Moreover, as other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, the legislation governing obscene images must be updated. The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 are outdated, with their vague concept of its being an offence to sell or display publicly material likely to deprave or corrupt.

There is the further issue of using images on the internet to incite others to violence and terrorism. I cite here the example of SHAC—the so-called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign—which, unfortunately, I regularly see in practice in my constituency. SHAC has made effective use of the power of the internet to promote its campaign. Tactics that have been employed include publishing images of employees and inciting or encouraging supporters to target them, and publishing names and home addresses of employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and professionals, who are then often attacked, intimidated, fire-bombed or sent hate mail. Those problems are indeed serious.

I shall consider briefly what people can currently do by using civil law—if they can afford it—and I shall again use the example of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Its legal department has successfully closed down the SHAC UK and USA websites some 10 to 15 times. Initial complaints are made to the internet service providers, and if unsuccessful, the complaint is passed on to the upstream ISP, which is usually a larger or national or international company. Reference is often made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which commonly forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content.