Last week, the Virtual Global Taskforce, formed by police agencies around the world, secured its first UK conviction. Lee Costi, a 21-year-old student from Surrey, was found guilty of raping two underage girls and sentenced to nine years in prison. He was caught after a mother alerted police to online conversations he was having with her 14-year-old daughter.
A triumph over online pedophiles? Perhaps. With the rows over child abusers becoming increasingly heated in the tabloid newspaper headlines, the UK Home Office is attacking on a number of fronts. One is online, where it has confronted Internet service providers (ISPs) with a stark alternative: install Web filtering for your domestic broadband customers, or we'll force you to.
That ultimatum was announced last month by Vernon Coaker, the parliamentary under secretary for policing, security and community safety. In a written parliamentary answer he assured British members of parliament that the Home Office was expecting broadband ISPs to install Web-filtering technology voluntarily by the end of next year but, if this deadline is not met, he would -- he hinted strongly -- consider legislation to force them to.
There's just one problem. ISPs say the costs are huge, running to hundreds of thousands of pounds for a large provider, and that the suggested filters are easily circumvented. Furthermore, a professor of computing at Cambridge University who has analysed the blocking system developed by the UK telcom giant BT, which claimed in 2004 to have been used to block thousands of attempted visits to banned sites, says it could be exploited by pedophiles to compile a list of the worst sites.
The move to Web filtering will require ISPs to join the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and receive its regularly updated, encrypted list of pedophile and race-hate sites, which they would need to block with their filtering software and hardware. But the Web-filtering experts and ISPs prepared to talk on this issue said the technology will only help prevent home broadband users -- dial-up and business customers are not, apparently, included in the proposals -- from accidentally accessing child-abuse sites.
"It's well intentioned, but irrelevant," says Simon Davies, managing director of the Internet provider IDNet. "The technology is expensive to have to offer within your normal service, and it will have little effect. Sure, it may stop accidental access but I don't really see there's a problem that needs solving."
He points out that Web filtering at present is only applied to connections made to the standard "port" for Web connections -- port 80. A port is like the window of a hotel -- a means of communicating between inside and outside. Any Web server has more than 65,000 ports available for connections to other computers.
"Pedophile sites simply need to switch to another port to remain unblocked," Davies says. "Very little pedophilia is shared online [by Web servers], it's more often done through peer-to-peer [P2P] networks, which cannot be controlled."
Tom Newton, product manager at the Web-filtering developer SmoothWall, concurs.
"The problem is these sites only go live for a very short amount of time, just long enough for those in the know to be informed, and then they're taken down again," he says. "It means there's probably very few on the list you're blocking that are still live. The vast majority of pictures are swapped on message boards, forums and P2P networks so there's virtually nothing you can do with Web filters."