ISPs face fight over liability for content

7 Feb 2007

Internet service providers (ISPs) have been urged to resist attempts to make them responsible for the information that passes over their networks.

Malcolm Hutty, head of public affairs at LINX, the London Internet Exchange, said that legislation protects ISPs’ status in law as ‘mere conduits’ of information and not responsible for what passes over their lines.

Governments are already coming under pressure to compel ISPs to block access to certain websites. Under laws passed recently in Germany and Italy, ISPs must not allow their customers to visit some online gambling services.

Hutty was in Ireland yesterday to give a presentation to members of INEX, the Irish internet peering point, about an introduction to the law for ISPs.

“We need to make a principled argument that watering this [legislation] down would be a bad idea for ISPs and society as a whole,” Hutty told afterwards. “The internet is a powerful force for good in society, not just the economy,” he argued.

“The internet is different to the phone system – it enables anyone else to add their content to it and enhance it.” Giving the invention of Skype as an example, he added: “Skype doesn’t require an ISP’s help to do that.”

Making service providers decide what constitutes suitable or inappropriate content would stifle that kind of creativity, he suggested. Any time a new type of site or application was introduced, if it was very different to existing sites, ISPs would play safe and not allow it.

“If they’re going to go to jail if it turns out to be bad, then they aren’t going to do it. If the ISP blocks anything that they don’t know about, then you haven’t got any invention left,” he stated.

According to Hutty, interest groups are campaigning for a change in the law, with agendas such as anti-terrorism or child protection. While totally opposed to websites exploiting children, he said that making ISPs block access to the sites was not the answer.

“My view is the best thing is to take child pornography off the internet, not redesign the network to be able to block it. Is holding the ISP responsible as the gatekeeper the best way? No, it’s not,” he said.

“The only way that you could have ISPs ensure they are safe from that kind of liability is for them to approve that these things are OK,” he added, pointing out that the resulting content would be bland and limited. “That would be a return to the old world of bulletin boards, before the internet got big. That would be a retrograde step,” he said.

“The internet has been able to grow because it hasn’t had that prior approval. You don’t have the network provider asking: ‘Is this good for my network?’ It’s the customer saying: ‘I would like this.’ It’s a model driven by the edges,” Hutty concluded.

By Gordon Smith