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[FYI] NEWSGROUPS - An Internet Watch Foundation discussion paper


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An Internet Watch Foundation discussion paper  


1. This discussion paper:  

explains what newsgroups are and how they operate explains the 
current role and policy of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in 
relation to newsgroups sets out the arguments in favour of a change 
of IWF policy sets out the arguments against a change in the policy 
invites interested organisations and individuals to submit views on 
this paper by 31 January 2001.  



26. Three arguments could be advanced in favour of the IWF advising 
ISPs to remove customer access to those few newsgroups known to 
contain the overwhelming majority of the child pornography on Usenet 

27. First, it is already accepted that there is a legal liability on 
ISPs not knowingly to host child pornography. Now that it is known 
which newsgroups regularly, even consistently, contain content that 
it is illegal to possess, these groups should be dropped by ISPs.  

28. For a variety of reasons, different ISPs already carry different 
ranges of newsgroups and therefore already many ISPs are not carrying 
the problematic groups. Furthermore newsgroup users have a wide range 
of suppliers to provide links to newsgroups. Therefore all UK ISPs 
should cease hosting those groups known to account for the most 
frequent instances of child pornography.  

29. BUT: Hosting such groups is not knowingly hosting child 
pornography because ISPs remove illegal items when the existence of 
such material is drawn to their attention. The majority of the items 
in any given group is not illegal. Therefore there should be no need 
to advise all UK ISPs not to carry these groups.  

30. Second, the removal of a few selected newsgroups could - almost 
literally overnight - reduce significantly the size of the newsgroup 

31. For instance, the research from August 1999 would seem to 
indicate that, if all ISPs ceased carrying the 'worst' three 
newsgroups, over three-quarters of the illegal material reported to 
the IWF would be removed. This would be a significant step in 
combating child pornography on the UK Internet.  

32. BUT: On the most favourable scenario - that is, assuming no 
displacement of the illegal material to other newsgroups - a quarter 
of the problematic material would still be available in other 
newsgroups. At the moment, there seems no way to avoid that. This 
approach begs the question of how many groups should not be carried 
and how any particular figure would be justified.  

33. Third, the absence of such newsgroups on UK servers could 
substantially reduce the future costs of operation of the IWF and 
allow more resources to be devoted to education and awareness, which 
is increasingly recognised as the most effective way to protect 
children from dangers on the Internet.  

34. If such groups continue to be readily available from UK servers, 
under its present policies the IWF will have to intensify its 
reviewing of such groups in order to notify ISPs of illegal content 
in them on a daily basis. This would require continued growth of 
staff and expenditure to keep pace with the traffic, and a seven-day 
operation. It will then be more difficult to allocate additional 
resources to its education and awareness role.  

35. BUT: In practice, the workload of the IWF would be unlikely to 
change significantly for four reasons. Firstly, because the 
problematic newsgroups continually change and the IWF would need to 
continue monitoring the relevant groups to maintain up-to-date advice 
to ISPs. Secondly, because about three-quarters of the reports made 
to the IWF prove to be legal material and these reports would still 
be made. Thirdly, because nearly a quarter of the illegal material 
would not be in the removed groups. One estimate is that, at best, 
the absence of the three 'worst' newsgroups from UK servers would 
perhaps reduce the IWF workload by around one-fifth. Fourthly, 
because a reduced hotline operation would probably threaten the 
funding of the IWF since ISPs originally established the organisation 
precisely to run such an operation.  


36. Five arguments can be put forward in opposition to the removal of 
the relevant newsgroups.  

37. First, any such removal simply would not work. Indeed it would be 
counter-productive because it would simply lead to the posters of the 
offending material migrating to other newsgroups.  

38. The experience of newsgroup activity is that material will always 
find a forum. If the original newsgroup is no longer available, a new 
one will be found or created and we will be dealing with a constantly 
moving target.  

39. There is already evidence of organised migration of material in 
response to specific perceived threats of infiltration and sometimes 
this migration is to another, totally innocent, newsgroup where it is 
more likely to be accessed unwittingly by legitimate users of that 

40. BUT: The fight against child pornography on the Internet will 
never be over and, if material migrates, it will have to be tracked 
down and removed from its new 'home'. The target may move, but it can 
and should be followed.  

41. Second, it is wrong for ISPs to remove newsgroups that have a 
clear majority of perfectly legal content.  

42. In any circumstances, the removal of newsgroups that contained 
legal material would be a denial of free speech, but to do so when it 
is known that the legal material is a very large proportion of the 
total content raises serious civil liberty issues.  

43. While it is possible for people to post in other newsgroups, such 
postings would be "off-topic" and so against the Usenet culture. And, 
of course, nothing stops the child pornographers following them. So 
far the groups containing the material are "marginal", but they could 
just as easily be "mainstream" and therefore more accessible to the 
generality of readers.  

44. BUT: There is a body of public opinion which puts a greater 
emphasis on combating child pornography than on protecting free 
expression and removal of the relevant newsgroups would be according 
more weight to that viewpoint.  

45. Third, the removal of selected newsgroups would give a false 
sense of security regarding the scale of the problem and therefore 
ultimately act to the detriment of efforts to combat child 

46. At present, child pornography in newsgroups is confined to a very 
small number of groups that are well known and carefully monitored. 
If these groups are removed, the problem may well move to other, less 
noticeable or predictable, locations that will be more difficult to 
trace and deal with.  

47. Since the IWF refers all potentially illegal content to the 
police as well as ISPs, removing certain newsgroups could result in 
fewer posters being identified and investigated that in turn might 
lead to fewer prosecutions and convictions. This would make the task 
of the police harder and could mean more children being abused.  

48. BUT: Any apparent sense of security would have to be combated by 
education and vigilance. It is not the 'visibility' of offenders or 
the number of prosecutions that matter but the amount of material 
that is accessible.  

49. Fourth, the success of any measures to remove selected newsgroups 
from UK servers would leave the material on servers in other 
countries and people could simply download it from there.  

50. The Internet and Usenet are global activities and the UK is 
merely a part, and proportionately a small part, of them. Even if the 
IWF had complete success in persuading all UK ISPs not to carry 
certain newsgroups, the same material will reside on news servers all 
around the world, including commercial servers in the USA.  

51. UK users would be able to access these newsgroups from the UK, 
simply by pointing their newsreader to download from these other 
servers as well as, or instead of, the server of their own ISP. 
Indeed, if a user wished to do so, it would be a relatively easy 
matter technically to arrange an automatic reposting of the relevant 
material from the non-UK host site to a UK newsgroup - the potential 
for revenge attacks is obvious.  

52. BUT: The concern of the IWF is the content of the UK Internet and 
the conduct of UK ISPs in this context. If a change of policy in 
relation to certain newsgroups left the material outside the UK but 
still accessible from it, the IWF would have done all that it 
reasonably could to address the problem. If the same material was 
available to UK readers at locations outside the UK, that would not 
be the responsibility of the IWF, although the IWF could campaign 
vigorously in all appropriate non-UK and international forums to 
persuade others to follow a similar line. We should stake out our 
position as best we can and urge others to follow.  

53. Fifth, if certain newsgroups are to be removed from UK servers, 
there is the difficult question of deciding which groups should be 

54. It has been explained that a small number of newsgroups account 
for a large proportion of the child pornography identified by the IWF 
but that, in the case of such newsgroups, the illegal material is 
normally a small minority of the total content of the group. 
Therefore, if the IWF was to target certain newsgroups for potential 
removal, the organisation would have to operate some sort of 
criteria, such as a certain percentage of illegal content compared to 
legal content. Any such criteria would be inherently subjective and 
enormously controversial.  

55. If the material migrates to other newsgroups, then the whole 
question would have to be addressed again and again. Furthermore 
consideration would have to be given to whether the removal of 
certain groups was a temporary or permanent matter or whether it 
would be appropriate to consider periodically the question of 

56. BUT: It might be that a small number of newsgroups represent such 
a large proportion of the illegal material that these groups are in 
effect self-selecting. Alternatively, if the IWF does change its 
policy and decide to target certain groups, it could hold a separate 
consultative exercise on how to select such groups. One could specify 
a certain percentage of illegal content or a certain number of 
illegal articles or some combination of these two criteria.  


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