With the European media awash with stories of child sex abuse, child pornography and child prostitution, officials at Scotland Yard have responded by publishing a list of 133 newsgroups which they say breach the Obscene Publications Act. Many of the sites feature pornographic images of children. However according to UK Internet service providers, the list also contains newsgroups that are for the most part just discussion groups, such as alt.homosexuality.
"Our view is that the police action is stupid," says Trevor Diamond, business development manager with Direct Connection, a London-based ISP that serves the gay community. "It's just a blanket ban on newsgroups, many of which are just discussion groups."
Scotland Yard compiled the list by going through the newsgroups concerned and listing anything that contravenes the Obscene Publications Act. "We're not saying that this is a definitive list," says Chief Inspector Stephen French, of the Metropolitan Police clubs and vice unit. "We're just saying that at the time we checked these newsgroups they all had material that is illegal under the Obscene Publications Act.
"We are particularly concerned about newsgroups that contained pornographic images of children," says French. But he denies that the list targets the gay community. "We're not using this list to bash the gay community over the head," says French. "We are adamant that all of the newsgroups concerned had material that was not only illegal but would be distasteful to any reasonable human being."
Currently, the regulatory situation in England is a nightmare, says David Barett, a spokesman for UUnet Pipex in Cambridge, England. "This subject comes up every couple of months. And we believe that the list the police have supplied is for the most part reasonable," Barett says, adding that many of UK ISPs have been trying to work with the police.
However, anyone can publish any picture to any newsgroup, according to industry watchers. "The problem with banning specific groups is that the pedophiles could start posting their pictures to any newsgroup such as alt.cooking," Barett says. "But we have got to start somewhere."
Officials at CompuServe say that it tried to ban newsgroups in January but had run into difficulties. "We reinstated a great deal of the newsgroups after careful vetting," says Pauline Blackmore, spokeswoman for CompuServe Information Services. However, most of the newsgroups on the list provided by Scotland Yard can be accessed via CompuServe.