Scotland Yard is demanding the ban of more than 100 public newsgroups that contain pornography, the United Kingdom's first major attempt to regulate material on the Internet.
The Metropolitan Police Service this week sent a letter to U.K.-based Internet service providers demanding that they block 133 Usenet newsgroups devoted to subjects ranging from homosexuality to child pornography.
The newsgroups, most of which contain pornographic material, fall under such categories as alt.binaries, alt.sex, and alt.magazines.
The decision to close them stems from discussions at Scotland Yard between law enforcement authorities and the Internet Service Provider's Association, which was formed last year as a lobbying group for ISPs in the United Kingdom.
The move marks the first time the United Kingdom has taken major action to control Internet content. Other European countries, such as Germany and France, have taken steps toward banning pornographic material online, and some Asian nations have imposed stringent regulations on content ranging from sex to politics.
In its letter to some 140 ISPs, Stephen French, chief inspector of the Metropolitan Police, wrote: "This list is only the starting point, and we hope with cooperation and assistance of the industry...to be moving quickly towards the eradication of this type of newsgroup from the Internet. We trust that with your cooperation and self regulation, it will not be necessary for us to move to an enforcement policy."
French added that "we are looking to you to identifying [newsgroups] and taking necessary action against those others found to contain such material." The letter also stresses that police have the right to make arrests and seize equipment of ISPs that refuse to comply.
VBCNet, a backbone provider to 20 networks, received the letter and promptly took down the newsgroups for fear of prosecution. But it refused to "police" its newsgroups.
"The police are trying to say that we're responsible for every newsgroup that passes through our system, but there are 200,000 news articles a day that go through, and we can't possibly look at them," said Jim Dixon, managing director of VBCNet. "We don't even know what they are."
Dixon referred to this action as "very British" and predicted that this is only the beginning. "We object strongly to the whole thing because it's basically a political stunt," he said. "These guys are not technical, they are not engineers, they are not lawyers, they have no idea what they're doing. But we have to comply."
Dixon recently sent a notice to VBCNet's customers, urging them to contact their subscribers and protest. "If there is no protest, if a precedent is established, the UK Internet is going to fall under the control of the Clubs and Vice Unit at Charing Cross Police Stations."
Wave Rider, a United Kingdom ISP, has not yet received the letter, but it has posted an opinion at its site. "As of yet we have taken no action, but I'm sure that a letter will be on its way to us, and at that point we'll have to make a decision as to what we're going to do," said Andy Cowan, Wave Rider technical director.
Police recently contacted Wave Rider to request that newsgroups containing child pornography be taken down, Cowan said. "We obliged them with that, but they said they wouldn't bother with anything else so this move is a huge step up," he added.
Cowan said the police don't know how to find child pornographers in any way but to deprive Internet users with a blanket shutdown. "What's happening is the police are looking at it as an easy option because ISPs are easy to get a hold of, and child pornographers can hide."
ISPs have three weeks to take down the selected newsgroups or face penalties. The United Kingdom has about 1.3 million subscribers, according to Wave Rider.