Guilty until proved innocent

IT professionals responsible for overseeing the use of the internet and e-mail within their organisations will come to work today...

IT professionals responsible for overseeing the use of the internet and e-mail within their organisations will come to work today uncertain whether their position means they risk facing a lengthy prison term.

Despite calls from the IT profession and internet service providers to protect staff who are helping to inform the police of internet abuse, the government has withdrawn an amendment to the forthcoming Sexual Offences Bill in a way that sought to protect IT staff who may legitimately view and pass on child pornography in the course of their work.

It was hoped that the Bill would be amended to acknowledge that it is inevitable that some IT staff will view and then pass on child porn in a genuine attempt to investigate internet misuse.

At present, IT staff are concerned that there is no legal defence to charges that carry a five-year prison sentence if they copy or view files containing child pornography, even to help the police.

The proposals to protect IT workers were rejected because the Association of Chief Police Officers expressed concern that they might be used by paedophiles as loopholes to escape conviction.

One alternative that has been suggested and is still under discussion, is to reverse the burden of proof in such instances so that IT professionals would have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that they were acting legitimately.

IT professionals should be concerned. They would be under suspicion until they could prove their innocence. What happens to an employee who cannot convince the authorities their intentions are within the law?

Senior police officers have assured the IT profession that they would never bring a prosecution against someone who viewed or passed on child pornography as part of a legitimate investigation.

They say officers want to partner with the IT profession to fight child pornography and, in many cases, they will need the assistance of IT workers to investigate such crimes.

But the fact remains that IT professionals could face the risk of a lengthy jail term and being falsely stigmatised just for doing their jobs.

It is not a satisfactory situation when decent, hard-working people must rely on the goodwill of the police alone. The worst thing to do in this situation is to leave the status of IT staff unresolved.

The IT profession requires clarification and solid legislation that will give IT workers adequate protection, but at the same time close any loopholes that can be exploited by paedophiles.

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