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Controls tighten on Internet porn

A children's charity this week launched an education campaign to protect young Internet users from paedophiles and pornography.

It comes in the week that the Internet industry itself announced a crackdown based on tip-offs from the public about offensive material.

NCH Action for Children launched its scheme with a debate on children and pornography on the Internet, and aims to alert parents and teachers to the dangers of unlimited access to the global computer network.

The two projects follow widespread concern about the increase in lurid material available. Recent research conducted over a week by Stockholm University revealed 5,561 postings of child porn.

At the campaign launch in London, Helen Dent of NCH said: "Nobody wants to see the Internet discredited. It has widened our horizons and offers immense educational opportunities especially to children. But we have to make it safer. In order to do that, the Internet community, the police, the Government and children's organisations need to work together."

Concern focuses on paedophiles who publish pictures of children engaged in sexual activity or even masquerade as children in order to make contact with young people via the Internet.

The debate surrounding pornography on the Internet has centred on whether it is possible or desirable to block it. Regulation is difficult as there is no central controlling authority and the net spans the globe without regard for frontiers.

Originators of obscene pictures and text can be prosecuted under existing laws although it is hard to track them down. Possible regulation focuses on three areas of responsibility: the provider of information, Internet companies, and users.

Safety-Net, the industry's response, is an attack on two fronts. It aims to remove most child pornography and give users the power to censor legal but possibly offensive material by using the Platform for Internet Content Selection System (PICS). This vets material according to sex, language, violence and nudity.

If Safety-Net goes to plan, Internet companies, who have until now argued that they cannot take responsibility for the many millions of items they handle every day, will be informed of any illegal material and given the opportunity to remove it.

Mike Hoskins, of the Metropolitan Police vice squad, warned that Internet companies failing to act on this information could be liable for prosecution.

However, critics of the scheme question its dependence on public notification and suggest it simply shifts responsibility from Internet companies to the users.

Paedophiles will find it relatively simple to get round the controls by posting and receiving images via foreign companies which are not part of Safety-Net.

Ian Taylor, the minister for science and technology, said imposing a set of regulations is not the answers. Instead he preferred a voluntary approach such as Safety-Net, although he acknowledged the scheme contained loopholes.

He said: "The Internet is so vast it's impossible to remove all illegal material. These proposals will go some way to addressing the issues."

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