The safety of children online, more than any other issue, is driving the growing move to censor the internet in the UK, but international agendas are making it hard to achieve practical results.
This was evident from a meeting of more than 100 interested parties at a Westminster eForum meeting this morning. It was held the day after 17 social networking firms agreed to a European Commission deal to prevent cyber-bullying.
Parliamentarians, regulators, internet industry, academics and civil society, discussed options to control internet content in the face of growing concerns over child safety, terrorism and copyright theft, among others.
Several speakers and delegates noted that US fear of contravening free speech laws made it hard to protect UK users from accidental or deliberate access to objectionable material. Some warned that regulating to protect children, which was a common cause, could also be used as a "Trojan horse" to stop access to material and debate of national political issues.
Alun Michaels, MP, warned against letting politicians legislate in ignorance as a "knee-jerk" reaction against some event. Hepreferred a "co-operative" approach whereby industry experts guided the development of laws and rules in a way that led to fast development of practical measures to stamp out abuses and undesirable content. This approach was working internationally through the Internet Governance Forum, he said.
Richard Mollett, spokesman for the BPI, a UK music publishers association, said self-regulation did not work. Despite a memorandum of understanding with the five top internet service providers (ISPS), UK music publishers were losing £200m a year in revenues, he said, and two-thirds of music downloads were illegal.
Mollett called for the internet industry to agree a "graduated response" to illegal file copiers, ranging from "notice and take-down" to a ban on internet access.
Christopher Stokes, CEO of NetResult, which specialises in protecting the rights of sports broadcasters, supported Mollett. He said it was hard to identify content thieves, which often hid stolen material in legitimate sites such as Blogspot, and harder to persuade some internet service providers to take down offending material.
The meeting acknowledged copyright theft as an important issue, but from comments in the room, this was a commercial matter for civil litigation. Child safety was both more urgent and in deeper need of attention.
The meeting agreed that illegal sexual content, as defined in legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act, should be removed and referred to the police for action. Speakers from AOL and Vodafone said the industry readily co-operated with the authorities when this happened.
Several speakers referred to the difficulty of establishing what was "inappropriate" or "harmful" material. Suggested approaches varied from the Draconian imposition on internet service providers (ISPs) of an obligation to screen and filter such content, to a more laissez-faire approach where parents should be educated and trained to apply filter tools and policies.
Ofcom's head of convergent media, Jeremy Olivier, said it was hard to regulate an area that was so dependent on social norms. ISPs were generally co-operative, he said, but would do only what the law required them to do.
He said making ISPs inspect and delete content was giving them "editorial powers" equivalent to broadcasters, which were highly regulated. This could destroy the innovation impetus that drove the internet, he said.