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 shall come to that issue shortly, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to hang on.

Traditionally, reference is commonly made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content, and adopt the so-called principles of netiquette, to which many ISPs have signed up. Reference is commonly made to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which has been so competently described by Vera Baird, as well as to copyright infringement and potentially defamatory remarks. The latter are in line with the case of Godfrey v. Demon Internet, which has eroded the ISP's defence of innocent dissemination if it is informed of the defamatory content but fails to act.

Huntingdon Life Sciences has had less success in the Netherlands, where SHAC's ISP site is currently domiciled, because that ISP holds radical views that make it much tougher to deal with. The interlocutory injunction—a civil remedy—obtained by HLS under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, prevents the publication of protected persons' names and addresses. The order is novel in that breaching it is a criminal offence and is therefore arrestable. The judge also declared that the injunction had to be printed on the SHAC site.

HLS had previously complained to the Information Commissioner that SHAC had not notified itself under the Data Protection Act 1998. The commission investigated the matter and concluded that SHAC had infringed the Act, but it refrained from pursuing enforcement. One of the reasons seemed to be that as SHAC would not abide by the criminal sanctions in any event, the limited resources of the commissioner would not be best used by trying to enforce them. That is a sad state of affairs.

One further avenue of compliant was to the Advertising Standards Authority. Complaints have been made that the SHAC website is not legal, decent, honest or truthful. Despite the authority's upholding such complaints, SHAC continues to publish; the toothless enforcement powers of the ASA are inadequate to deal with those who flagrantly flout such decisions.

Despite the problems of using the civil law, the expensive use of injunctions has meant that the civil law now goes beyond what the criminal law has to offer. That needs to be changed, not least because many smaller companies and people cannot afford to apply for injunctions and because, in any event, they expect to be protected by the criminal law.

I make two suggestions to deal with the foreign hosting of illegal sites, which is the key problem. First, the Crown Prosecution Service now has to prove who is the author, publisher or recipient of any articles that appear on the website, and then prove that the material constitutes an incitement to commit a crime, or is a crime in itself. That is clearly extremely difficult if not impossible to prove in respect of organisations such as SHAC. However, the law could be changed so that, under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, an extremist, threatening or intimidatory offence could be classified as aggravated in the same way as a racially aggravated offence. If the penalty was increased to make it an arrestable rather than a summary offence, it would be much easier for the police to investigate and gain convictions.

Secondly, a law could be introduced to make the person or organisation registering or paying for the website, wherever it was hosted, responsible for what was published on it, with the burden of proof being on the person or the organisation to show that they were not responsible for the contents of the website.

As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, none of that should stop the Government working to improve international protocols on acceptable behaviour. Some talk about internet freedom as if it were different, but it is a medium, and like other media it should be regulated to protect people from crime.