BT PUTS BLOCK ON CHILD PORN SITES
Martin Bright, home affairs editor
Sunday June 6, 2004
British Telecom has taken the unprecedented step of blocking all illegal child pornography websites in a crackdown on abuse online. The decision by Britain's largest high-speed internet provider will lead to the first mass censorship of the web attempted in a Western democracy.
The move, previously thought to be at the limits of technical possibilities of the internet and prohibitively expensive, was given the personal backing of BT chairman Sir Christopher Bland at a board meeting last month after intense pressure from children's charities.
Known as Cleanfeed, the project has been developed in consultation with the Home Office and will go live by the end of the month, The Observer can reveal. Other major players in the internet market, such as Energis and Thus, which owns rival Demon Internet, are said to be preparing to block banned sites.
Subscribers to British Telecom's internet services such as BTYahoo and BTInternet who attempt to access illegal sites will receive an error message as if the page was unavailable. BT will register the number of attempts but will not be able to record details of those accessing the sites.
A list of illegal sites compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry's watchdog, has been available for some time, but until now there has been no way to prevent people accessing them because most are based outside the UK.
The initiative would not have been possible a year ago, but improvements in computer processing speeds means that the company is now able to block websites, offensive pages and even individual images of abuse.
The move is the brainchild of John Carr, internet adviser to children's charity NCH, who wrote to Home Office Minister Paul Goggins last July urging action on paedophile websites after a successful campaign to block internet newsgroups (electronic message boards which paedophiles used to share images of children). Goggins approached internet providers last September to ask them to investigate if it would be possible. At first they were resistant, but BT came back to the Home Office last month to announce early tests of Cleanfeed had been successful.
Blocking websites is highly controversial and until now has been associated only with oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and China, which have censored sites associated with dissidents. But many in the field of child protection believe that the explosion of paedophile sites justifies the crackdown.
'British Telecom deserve to be congratulated on this bold move,' Carr said. 'I expect every other service provider will now look at what they are doing to see if they can achieve a similar result.'
Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT Retail, added: 'You are always caught between the desire to tackle child pornography and freedom of information. But I was fed up with not acting on this and always being told that it was techically impossible.'
EXTENT OF CHILD PORN REVEALED
The scale of child porn use on the net has alarmed watchdogs
BT says it is blocking up to 20,000 attempts each day to access child porn. Its figures provide the first firm evidence of the extent of web paedophilia and BT is targeting the porn with its Clean Feed system.
The Internet Watch Foundation called the figures "staggering" and said children were being abused in order to supply the hardcore images. Police officials said the extent of the online porn problem was "extremely disturbing".
BT said in its first three weeks its new system, which bars access to particular sites, registered nearly 250,000 attempts to view web pages containing images of child pornography. That represents an average of about 10,000 requests each day. Anyone trying to access such a site would be presented with a message reading "Website not found".
Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT retail, said the company was blocking access to hundreds of sites which had been identified by the Internet Watch Foundation. But he said BT did not track those trying to log onto the sites or pass their details on to police. And he said the company had no way of telling how many users were navigating to such sites by accident.
"We don't know their motives or who does it and honestly we don't want to know," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
A BT spokesman added: "It could be that one dedicated pervert is making hundreds of attempts to get on websites each day."
Currently the technology is only blocking BT Retail's 2.5 million internet customers from viewing child porn sites but Mr Danon said the company would make it available to other internet service providers on a non-commercial basis.
Home Office minister Paul Goggins said the figures revealed by BT were "deeply shocking" and he said he hoped other service providers would take up the offer of using BT's blocking technology. He told the Today programme: "Every image of a child that appears on the internet is an image of a child that's abused."
The BBC's Neil Bennett said even allowing for some people making repeated attempts, it is clear thousands of people are trying to see such material daily.
BT is only one of the main service providers in the UK and police leaders are calling on others to block paedophile websites.
Websites assessed by the IWF as "illegal to view" under the 1978 Child Protection Act were targeted by BT.
The IWF keeps a real-time live database which is updated every time an illegal site is found. At any one time there are thousands of sites on the database.