Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Easy to publish, 'almost impossible' to remove
Uploading a Website onto a new ISP can take just minutes
The UK Government has been playing cyber catch-up with renegade spy Richard Tomlinson since the end of last month.
As soon as they shut down the former MI6 man's Swiss-based Website - because he was believed to have revealed the identities of other spies in it - he merely uploaded the site onto another internet service provider (ISP), Geocites.
Even though Geocites soon became aware of the injunction taken against the Swiss-based site, and promptly evicted Mr Tomlinson from its cyberspace, theoretically it could only be a matter of time before he sets up again with another ISP.
"It is incredibly easy to set up a Website, especially with free ISPs," said Nicholas Ispanayis, of Freedom2Surf.
"Basically, anyone can log on to a free ISP, provide any kind of identity, and set up a site. If that site contains illegal information, it may be shut down, but then it is very quick and easy to upload all the code onto another ISP."
ISPs are only too aware of the problem. The vast majority of the Internet's bad press comes from the relatively small amount of illegal information which is published on it.
Nicholas Lansman, General Secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association, says the industry is making great strides in the area of self-regulation.
He said: "The Internet Watch Foundation has a reporting system which it acts very quickly upon.
"There is a hotline, and if users come across sites which they think contain illegal or unsuitable material, then they report it and it is investigated.
"Wherever necessary, a site will be removed, and if illegal activity - maybe racism or child pornography - is suspected, we will inform the police.
"In a case such as the Richard Tomlinson site, if the police provided the correct warrants, then they would be given all the information they required. We cannot and will not just hand out information without breaching the Data Protection Act."
There are also moves being made to create tools which will allow users to filter out all the types of sites they do not wish to have access to, such as pornographic or racially abusive sites.
Peter Shipley, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has a Computer Crime Group, said it was impossible to stop anyone creating and publishing a website, but that the police made every effort to track down people who published illegal information and images.
"It is impossible to stop someone setting up a Website in the first instance, that is humanly and technologically impossible.
"But we are having consultations with the ISPs and other people in the industry to come up with policy which will enable us to act against illegal information which is published on the Internet.
"For example, the Government is about to publish the e-commerce bill, which will provide guidelines which should enable the authorities to clamp down on fraudulent activities on the Internet.
Rapidly growing and developing
"But we are faced with a technology that is growing and developing so rapidly, and we are having to develop ways of tackling the problems that are associated with it.
"What you have to remember is that the Internet is not an intrinsically bad thing because some people chose to publish illegal information on it."
The ISPA's Mr Lansman agrees. He said: "A lot of the information you can get on the Internet is to be found in all big libraries. If you wanted to make a bomb, there would be a library somewhere which would have the relevant information.
"Similarly if you wanted child pornography, there would be means of getting it other than the Internet.
"The ISPs cannot be held responsible for what is published. That is a nonsense.
"The vast, vast majority of information published on the Internet is informative, or of leisure value, to the people who use it."