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Internet (Extreme Images)

18th May 2004

Jonathan Djanogly makes his first speech as Shadow Minister for Home, Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on their contributions and on introducing an important debate. For all the internet's benefits, its darker and more frightening sides are becoming increasingly apparent. Many sections of the community are being victimised through this powerful medium in different ways. In order to address the varying yet connected ranges of extreme images, I shall briefly cover child pornography, obscene publications and websites that incite others to commit crimes that sometimes go beyond pornography towards outright terrorism.

Much work has gone into tackling child pornography on the internet through projects such as Operation Ore, and there have been results. The percentage of sites hosted in the UK that the Internet Watch Foundation reported as containing illegal images of children fell, as has been said, to 1 per cent. in 2003. Now the problem, to which I shall return, is what to do with the foreign sites. Operation Ore was a two-year investigation into internet paedophiles. Of 7,200 people identified by the investigation, 3,537 were suspects, 1,679 were charged and 1,230 were convicted-and that was a clampdown on just one site.

However, I have concerns about the delays that occurred during the investigation and its wider implications. Scotland Yard received the names of the 7,200 people in 2000, but my local experience is that the police in Cambridgeshire received the names of those identified in the county only in July 2002, and I suspect that there have been similar delays at other forces around the country. Can the Minister comment on those delays and explain what happened?

I am also concerned about whether the police can cope with their current resources. Are forces properly funded and do they have access to adequate IT specialists? As the hon. Member for Reading, West said, only three forces have units dedicated to investigating paedophile activity on the net. Could the Minister comment on how the police would cope if another 7,000 names were passed to Scotland Yard tomorrow?

Child pornography is not the only issue that must be addressed: pornography on the internet as a whole is in need of regulation. The murder of Jane Longhurst in March 2003 by a man who had downloaded hundreds of evil images before he strangled her has, as was movingly expressed by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion and for Reading, West, highlighted the issue. New methods of tackling obscene images on the web must be used, as several hon. Members have suggested.

For example, the banks and collection agents that allow people to pay to enter pornographic sites could cancel cards or make such transactions void; that possibility was well described by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). Filters can be put in to computers, there must be more restrictions on unsolicited commercial e-mails and spam, and search engines could be restricted so as not to trigger such obscene sites. Moreover, as other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the legislation governing obscene images must be updated. The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 are outdated, with their vague concept of its being an offence to sell or display publicly material likely to deprave or corrupt.

There is the further issue of using images on the internet to incite others to violence and terrorism. I cite here the example of SHAC-the so-called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign-which, unfortunately, I regularly see in practice in my constituency. SHAC has made effective use of the power of the internet to promote its campaign. Tactics that have been employed include publishing images of employees and inciting or encouraging supporters to target them, and publishing names and home addresses of employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and professionals, who are then often attacked, intimidated, fire-bombed or sent hate mail. Those problems are indeed serious.

I shall consider briefly what people can currently do by using civil law-if they can afford it-and I shall again use the example of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Its legal department has successfully closed down the SHAC UK and USA websites some 10 to 15 times. Initial complaints are made to the internet service providers, and if unsuccessful, the complaint is passed on to the upstream ISP, which is usually a larger or national or international company. Reference is often made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which commonly forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content.

Brian White : In evidence to the all-party internet group, which was considering the use of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, some ISPs pointed out that they can go back several stages in meeting other ISPs, but that they will eventually come to a black hole, and not be able to trace the ISP that provides the service. How would the hon. Gentleman deal with such a situation?

Mr. Djanogly : I shall come to that issue shortly, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to hang on.

Traditionally, reference is commonly made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content, and adopt the so-called principles of netiquette, to which many ISPs have signed up. Reference is commonly made to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which has been so competently described by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), as well as to copyright infringement and potentially defamatory remarks. The latter are in line with the case of Godfrey v. Demon Internet, which has eroded the ISP's defence of innocent dissemination if it is informed of the defamatory content but fails to act.

Huntingdon Life Sciences has had less success in the Netherlands, where SHAC's ISP site is currently domiciled, because that ISP holds radical views that make it much tougher to deal with. The interlocutory injunction-a civil remedy-obtained by HLS under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, prevents the publication of protected persons' names and addresses. The order is novel in that breaching it is a criminal offence and is therefore arrestable. The judge also declared that the injunction had to be printed on the SHAC site.

HLS had previously complained to the Information Commissioner that SHAC had not notified itself under the Data Protection Act 1998. The commission investigated the matter and concluded that SHAC had infringed the Act, but it refrained from pursuing enforcement. One of the reasons seemed to be that as SHAC would not abide by the criminal sanctions in any event, the limited resources of the commissioner would not be best used by trying to enforce them. That is a sad state of affairs.

One further avenue of compliant was to the Advertising Standards Authority. Complaints have been made that the SHAC website is not legal, decent, honest or truthful. Despite the authority's upholding such complaints, SHAC continues to publish; the toothless enforcement powers of the ASA are inadequate to deal with those who flagrantly flout such decisions.

Despite the problems of using the civil law, the expensive use of injunctions has meant that the civil law now goes beyond what the criminal law has to offer. That needs to be changed, not least because many smaller companies and people cannot afford to apply for injunctions and because, in any event, they expect to be protected by the criminal law.

I make two suggestions to deal with the foreign hosting of illegal sites, which is the key problem. First, the Crown Prosecution Service now has to prove who is the author, publisher or recipient of any articles that appear on the website, and then prove that the material constitutes an incitement to commit a crime, or is a crime in itself. That is clearly extremely difficult if not impossible to prove in respect of organisations such as SHAC. However, the law could be changed so that, under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, an extremist, threatening or intimidatory offence could be classified as aggravated in the same way as a racially aggravated offence. If the penalty was increased to make it an arrestable rather than a summary offence, it would be much easier for the police to investigate and gain convictions.

Secondly, a law could be introduced to make the person or organisation registering or paying for the website, wherever it was hosted, responsible for what was published on it, with the burden of proof being on the person or the organisation to show that they were not responsible for the contents of the website.

As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, none of that should stop the Government working to improve international protocols on acceptable behaviour. Some talk about internet freedom as if it were different, but it is a medium, and like other media it should be regulated to protect people from crime.

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