Below is the transcript of an interview that Computer Shopper conducted with a Home Office spokesman regarding the government's policy towards tackling child abuse websites. We sent our questions over to the Home Office a day before the interview took place, to give them plenty of time to prepare.
Computer Shopper: In 2006, the Home Office pledged that all ISPs will block access to illegal content. How does the Home Office intend to make this happen?
Home Office: Over 95 per cent of consumer broadband connections are covered by blocking of child sexual abuse websites.
The UK has taken a collective approach to addressing this issue, and has had considerable success in ensuring that the sites on the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) list are blocked. We will continue to consider what further action or measures might be needed. We're working towards getting that last five per cent to make it 100 per cent.
In terms of how we actually achieve that, we have some very tough penalties in place. For example, the maximum penalty for possession of child pornography is five years. For the production and distribution of that is up to 10 years. So there's some tough penalties in place. So basically the short answer is that we use self regulation and tough penalties.
CS: Is the IWF allowed to view illegal content in its office, given that it is not a government body? If so, why? Is there a special licence that is required, and how many other organisations have this permission?
HO: The IWF doesn't perform that role itself. What it does is provide a list of websites containing illegal images to industry members, and then they themselves block access to those websites.
CS: Doesn't the IWF have to visit illegal websites and download child pornography in order to compile that list?
HO: They have a list of websites with illegal images. It's something that we don't physically do ourselves, as it were.
CS: If I were to go online and start looking at child pornography, obviously that would be illegal. So for the IWF to do that, they must have been given some sort of licence to be able to do that?
HO: Well they don't do that themselves, to be honest it's better to ask them how they actually do that.
CS: I have asked them. They told me they get reports from consumers about potentially illegal websites, and then they investigate suspected child pornography websites. It would be illegal if consumers were to take that responsibility upon themselves, so wouldn't the IWF need some sort of permission?
HO: Sure, to carry that function, they need to delete that, so yes they have that.
CS: So they have an official licence to visit child pornography websites?
HO: Not as such, no. But it's not illegal to delete such images, it's illegal to actually possess it, produce it or reproduce it - it's not illegal to delete it, which is what they do.*
*(The IWF does not delete any content. It reports illegal websites to the government and law enforcement agencies, who investigate the individuals involved and take down offending websites.)
CS: How does the government make sure that the IWF's list is only blocking illegal content?
HO: We meet with the IWF fairly regularly for updates on how they're doing. So that's what is undertaken.
CS: How can ISPs block access to child pornography websites without relying on the IWF? Is it possible?
HO: Well, the IWF doesn't actually block them, what it does is provide a list of dodgy websites to ISPs, and they then undertake the blocking work.
CS: If an ISP, for one reason or another, did not want to subscribe to the IWF's blacklist, is there an alternative that they can use?
HO: How do you mean an alternative?
CS: Well, does the government have its own blacklist that ISPs could use?
HO: No, it's something that we do with the IWF.
CS: So there is no official government body that ISPs can rely on to help them. They have to use this independent organisation?
HO: Well indeed, yes. That's right.
CS: So the government is telling ISPs that they have to block all child pornography websites and it's telling them that they have to use the IWF's blacklist to do that?
HO: Well indeed yes, we believe that's the best vehicle for it.