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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February 2004, 13:43 GMT
Policing the net

by Jon Silverman
BBC News Online

The family of teacher Jane Longhurst - whose killer was jailed for life for murder - is demanding the closure of some pornographic internet sites. But is that possible, particularly if they are sited outside the UK?

Jane Longhurst's family
The Longhurst family have called for a crackdown on extreme sites

The internet is not a legal vacuum and, according to the Internet Watch Foundation, service providers are expected to implement reasonable, practicable and proportionate measures to hinder the use of the Internet for illegal purposes.

The question is, what is illegal? That which contravenes the law of the country in which the consumer of the material lives or is affected by its content.

And therein lays a major problem.

Whilst it is possible that some of the hard-core sites visited by Graham Coutts - who was found guilty on Wednesday of murdering Ms Longhurst - breach the Obscene Publications Act, the fact that they are hosted by service providers (ISP's) based overseas, means that the UK authorities have no jurisdiction to act.

Where the material originates outside the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation will attempt to trace the source and pass details to the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

They will then liaise with the police in the country concerned.

But whether a site is closed down as a result depends very much on the attitude of the ISP hosting it and the level of awareness of those producing the images.

Blocking sites

Eighteen months ago, an international Internet paedophile ring calling itself the Shadowz Brotherhood was broken up by the police.

But it had evaded law enforcers for some years by using sophisticated encryption and constantly switching ISPs.

In the last two years, heightened concern about child abuse has led to a number of counter-measures.

Perhaps the most high-profile was the decision by Microsoft to withdraw its UK chat room services.

But where obscene or pornographic material aimed at adults is concerned, the same consensus does not exist.

Consultant Ray Wyre said: "The internet has developed on the money from the pornography industry and continues to do so.

Graham Coutts
Graham Coutts visited hard core sites on the Net

"The censorship of adult pornography - even at the extreme end - seems now a non-starter.

"The fact that the bulk of this material originates in the US, where the First Amendment has provided a bar to censorship, is also relevant."

The technical means to ban access to certain sites is available.

There are any number of blocking software programmes, some of which work by placing an electronic padlock on sites which contain particular words or letters.

But there are problems.

For example, according to author Alan Travis, blocking sites with the letters s, e and x in the title stops access not only to sex sites but also to those to do with Mars exploration.

Man guilty of teacher murder
04 Feb 04 |  Southern Counties
Gagging the net in 3 easy steps
13 Apr 00 |  UK News
Online dragnet to thwart paedophiles
18 Dec 03 |  Technology

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