On the 1st December 2011 the UK Parliament produced guidance on its plans for monitoring and managing the internet. It was published as a “Commons Library Standard Note“.

The remit of the document is:-

The practicalities of blocking and filtering harmful material on the internet have generated interest in a range of contexts: the misuse of social media during the August 2011 riots, child sexual abuse images and copyright infringement.

The communications regulator, Ofcom, considered arange of blocking techniques in the context of combating copyright infringement. Ofcom reported in May 2011. In August 2011, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published Next steps for implementation of the Digital Economy Act. This referred to Ofcom’s assessment of website blocking and the fact that the Government would not be proceeding with this for the time being.

Other legislation can also be invoked to control internet content. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 proscribes the improper use of a public electronic communications network. It has recently been applied, apparently for the first time, to a social networking site (Twitter ).

Online activity is also subject to general offline legislation such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Tackling internet hate crime is another area that poses a challenge to the adaptation of law to this medium. A new service for reporting all hate crimes online was launched by the police in April 2011.

The paper then went on to address 6 specific sections

  1. Website blocking
  2. Digital Economy Act
  3. Communications Act
  4. Obscene Publications Act
  5. Human Rights Act
  6. Internet hate crime

A summary of the 6 sections is below:-

1 Website blocking

Access to harmful content can be stopped in a number of ways. Most internet service providers (ISPs) block access (by anyone) to websites known to contain images of child sexual abuse (“child pornography”). The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) maintains a list of offending websites which is updated twice daily. The list typically contains details of 500 websites.

The IWF considers this kind of blocking to be

“a short-term disruption tactic which can help protect internet users from stumbling across these images, whilst processes to have them removed are instigated.”

It is highly unlikely to be a suitable approach for adult pornography or violent material much of which is legal (at least if it is unavailable to minors)1 and which is prevalent on the internet. However, this kind of blocking (known as uniform resource locator blocking) is only one of a number of available techniques.

The communications regulator, Ofcom, considered a range of blocking techniques – albeit in a different context – in its report of May 2011, “Site Blocking” to reduce online copyright infringement. The techniques considered were termed “primary” on account of their allowing ISPs to apply blocking at the level of their network infrastructure. Although none of the specific techniques are failsafe, they aim to prevent harmful material reaching any device within the home. The main alternative currently used is to install software on individual devices in the home to block the display of material identified as being harmful. One problem with filtering and blocking techniques is that legitimate websites can sometimes be captured. Deliberate circumvention by IT-literate users is also a challenge.

2 Digital Economy Act

Sections 17 and 18 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 cover website blocking, albeit in connection with copyright infringement:

  • “Power to make provision about injunctions preventing access to locations on the internet”
  • “Consultation and Parliamentary scrutiny”

In brief the effect of these sections is to introduce a power to bring in regulations for website blocking, subject to a “superaffirmative” parliamentary procedure. The Secretary of State could make the relevant regulations, but only a court could order the blocking of a website once (if ever) such regulations provide for this.

3 Communications Act

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 proscribes the improper use of a public electronic communications network. It has recently been applied, apparently for the first time, to a social networking site (involving a reference on Twitter to bombing an airport). Background to this case (currently subject to appeal) involving Paul Chambers is widely available online. It is worth commenting that the application and interpretation of the relevant statute law as it applies to the internet is still at a relatively early stage of development.

4 Obscene Publications Act

While the Obscene Publications Act 1959 tends to focus on sexual material, it could in principle also apply to violence in a non-sexual context.4 Publication of obscene material, including child pornography and extreme adult pornography, is illegal under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (which extends to England and Wales). Section 2 (as amended by the Obscene Publications Act 1964) prohibits the “publication” of obscene material.

5 Human Rights Act

If feasible, preventing access to online media by individuals wishing to organise violent disorder would be unlikely to infringe their human rights. In the UK the relevant legislation is the Human Rights Act 1998 which gives further legal effect to the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to free speech, is a qualified right.

6 Internet hate crime

A new service for reporting all hate crimes online was launched by the police in April 2011. The website, called True Vision, is supported by all forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All reports of incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK previously reported to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) should now be reported directly to True Vision.

The full document can be found here.