Will Irish ISPs take greater steps to protect children online?

14 Oct 2011

Earlier this week, it emerged that four ISPs in the UK voluntarily moved to block porn and only allow access on an opt-in basis in order to prevent children from accessing this material. Should Irish ISPs act likewise but also take greater steps to tackle the spread of child abuse material on the internet?

Under the voluntary steps taken by the UK-based ISPs, customers will have to opt-in to view pornographic websites, otherwise they will be blocked from them. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is also expected to announce other moves to prevent children accessing sexualised content.

Should Irish ISPs be expected to do likewise? The question actually goes deeper and brings into question what ISPs are actually doing to prevent access to more questionable material, in particular child abuse material, which has become a cottage industry online and involves acts of intolerable cruelty against children.

For a country like Ireland, whose recent history has been blighted by horrific revelations of child abuse in religious and State institutions, you would assume the issue of blocking child abuse material on the internet would attract greater debate at a political level. But, so far, it has not.

Argument for blocking and inclusion of ‘mandatory reporting’ in legislation

For Pat McKenna of Childwatch.ie, the issue is becoming more and more dangerous because teenagers, in particular, are being exposed not only to mainstream porn but increasingly to child abuse material.

He has presented these concerns to more than 20,000 second level students, teachers and parents across Ireland.

Not only is McKenna a proponent of blocking this material from the internet altogether, but he believes mandatory reporting by ISPs of child abuse material (CAM) being accessed on their networks should be included in forthcoming legislation being tabled by the Minister for Children & Youth Affairs.

“Mandatory reporting for ISPs is absolutely critical,” McKenna explained. “It would be a progressive step. At present, there is the Child Trafficking & Pornography Act that requires citizens to report if they are aware of someone accessing this material. However, the word ‘knowing’ can be gotten around, but mandatory reporting – if you know about an offence – then you are duty bound to report it. If you have knowledge of such an act then you must report it. No compromise. No concession.

“There must be no concession for ISPs to not report this kind of activity if CAM is being accessed on Irish networks.”

At present, McKenna pointed out, only mobile operators providing internet services over mobile networks actually block access to child pornography as part of a voluntary code of practice through their membership of the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) and he argues that fixed line operators, too, could implement filters and implement measures, such as DNS blocking or hybrid measures.

McKenna added he does not buy into the notion that blocking CAM would in any way upset the internet giants that are locating operations in Ireland, dismissing such an argument as a cop out. “With the spread of cloud computing across the world, in America, Google and Amazon and others are all required by law to report mandatory instances where CAM appears on their servers. I can’t understand why they don’t do this in Ireland.”

McKenna said both Ireland’s police force, Gardai Siochana, and Interpol want Irish ISPs to take greater action.

Gardai seek blocking of child abuse material by ISPs

Earlier this year, the garda’s Paedophile Investigation Unit (PIU) wrote a letter to Irish ISPs warning them the CAM images and videos being downloaded by Irish citizens and the creation of this material involve children being sexually abused and exploited in every way possible.

“Many criminals organise the sexual abuse of children, the production of images and video files depicting that abuse and the commercial distribution of that material using websites,” Det Supt John McCann wrote in the letter. “There are also many people with a sexual interest in children who abuse children and deliberately record that sexual abuse so they can distribute images and video clips through websites.”

McCann said the PIU, along with other European police forces, is seeking to implement a blocking technology that would be operated by ISPs with the assistance of the police forces. Such a system would require the gardai forwarding a list of relevant domain and sub-domain names to these websites and re-direct the customer to a “STOP!” page explaining to the customer what has happened.

McCann warned: “It is clear that genuine ISP customers are inadvertently accessing such material and reporting it to either An Garda Siochana or the ISPAI Hotlin. Children of ISP customers also appear to be accessing the material.”

Yesterday, the Irish Society for the Protection Against Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) issued a report calling for an internet panic button for children accessing Facebook and other websites and requested more stringent legislation for monitoring and addressing child abuse online to keep in line with the on-going development of technology.

It said this can be done through:

  1. Implementation of the EU directive on sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.
  2. Government, law enforcement and industry service providers working together to combat peer-to-peer software for the distribution of child abuse images.
  3. Harsher sentences for those who view child abuse images on the web, as viewing it is equally a crime. We need to ensure children are protected from those who habitually prey on them.

Why is Ireland avoiding the issue of tackling child abuse material online?

An adviser to the UN and the UK government on internet safety for children, John Carr, told Siliconrepublic.com that with the exception of Italy, no European States have yet implemented a law blocking CAM. “Germany has produced such a law but it has not yet been implemented. In Italy, any images or videos found on servers located on Italian territory must be deleted within six hours. And CAM found on any servers outside Italy but accessible must be blocked.”

Carr said that in Norway there is a written agreement between the police and ISPs that in return for the police providing ISPs with a list of URLs to be blocked the ISPs undertake to block them.

“The UK does it in a unique way, it is all voluntary. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a NGO, keeps a list of known URLs containing CAM and supplies it to ISPs who then block them. It is a condition of receiving the list that you must use it. For some companies, subscribing to it means they get good PR. On notice of the material, it is technically considered illegal. Failure to act would mean loss of immunity for legal liability under the E-commerce Directive 2000, article 12. Failure to act ‘expeditiously’ means you are liable.”

Carr said he doesn’t understand how Ireland, with its tragic recent history of child abuse, is not taking stringent, comprehensive efforts to combat the spread of CAM.

“For mobile ISPs that have taken action, the cost of implementing blocking is minute. For a fixed line ISP, it could cost from zero to not a lot. The IWF system in the UK works in such a way that the list is automatically updated twice a day.”

Carr said the dangers of CAM online facing a society are immense. “The very fact that someone downloads and looks at this material means they have a sexual interest in children. This could lead to real offences in real life. If there are children in their family or in their social circle, then that’s a reason to block, if for no other reason.”

He pointed to a study by the US Postal Inspection Service that showed that one in three people arrested for simply possessing CAM had actually committed sexual abuse in the past or quite recently. “That means if someone looks at CAM there’s a one in three chance that you are looking at a paedophile.

“The fact that Ireland is not doing anything about this is ridiculous. If there was one country that should be doing something about this, it should be Ireland,” Carr said.

I spoke to Ronan Lupton of ALTO, an association of licensed telecoms companies that includes ISPs amongst its members. Lupton said the industry would be willing to consult on the issue of blocking but that as of yet there has been no movement from either Government or industry on the matter.

He said blocking CAM would require different methods for different operators. “Mobile operators may be able to control the content on devices like smartphones, but when you have Wi-Fi devices, for example, it is harder to implement for some operators.

“But these challenges aren’t insurmountable.”

If the technical challenges aren’t insurmountable, then Ireland, of all countries, should start to take some meaningful action.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years