- The French Letter
On 9 August 1996, certain internet service providers (ISPs) in Britain were
sent a letter (which you can read by clicking here)
from a Chief Inspector French of the Metropolitan Police Clubs
& Vice Squad with a list of some 133 Usenet groups that, according to CI
French, contained "pornographic" material and should be blocked by service
providers on a "voluntary" basis if servers didn't want the authorities to
take stronger measures.
By 14 August, this letter had made the rounds and was already a topic for
serious debate on a variety of Usenet groups (particularly those in the UK
hierarchy) and on various internal conferencing systems. There were
several curious aspects of the letter that the net's citizens noticed right
"Further to the seminar held at New Scotland Yard on 2nd August I enclose,
as promised by Superintendent Mike Hoskins, a list of those Newsgroups which
we believe contain pornographic material,"
began CI French. Many people who are familiar with censorship arguments
only from the net did not immediately pick up on the use of the term
"pornography" here, but those of us who have been involved with print
censorship issues were instantly put on our guard. "Pornography" is not a
legal term, so we wondered why it was placed so broadly.
Anti-censorship activists are all too well aware of Clubs & Vice's record
on "illegality". Like their predecessors, the Obscene Publications Squad,
their tendency is to treat sex in general and erotica in particular as a
serious crime. Material that is sold openly in newsagents is often seized
from smaller distributors who carry the same books or magazines, and
publications which are softcore by any definition have been placed under
destruction orders. The Met's tendency has been to try to push the envelope
further, seizing material that hardly a soul would find obscene; the costs
to distributors are so high that most are afraid to push in the other direction.
To us, the letter from CI French looked like an attempt to circumvent the
anti-censorship discourse and clamp down on this medium altogether, at a
level never seen before, lest any freedoms could be established in law.
Especially when French went on:
"We have attempted to confirm that the Newsgroups listed currently contain
this offensive material but as you will be only too aware the content is
continually changing and you will need to satisfy yourself about the nature
and content before taking any action. Furthermore, this list is
not exhaustive and we are looking to you to monitor your Newsgroups
identifying and taking necessary action against those others found to
contain such material. As you will be aware the publication of
obscene articles is an offence."
In this paragraph, the material in qustion is "offensive" (again, not a legal
term) and we are further reminded that "the publication of obscene articles
is an offence." But material is not obscene (and hence illegal) in law
merely because it is pornographic or offensive. To be obscene material
must be found by a jury to be likely to "deprave and corrupt those most
likely to see it", according to the Obscene Publications Acts. Most
pornography tends to be exonerated of this charge when brought before
juries in Britain, and is therefore legal. Only child pornography, banned
separately under the Protection of Children Act, is inarguably illegal (if
we only knew what "child pornography" was - unfortunately the police and
courts seem to treat virtually any image of an unclothed child as "child
Yet the newsgroups listed by CI French were not all binaries (pictures)
groups, not all relevant to children, and not all pornographic. Indeed,
it was easy to get the impression that the Inspector had merely searched
for any newsgroup names that included the words "sex" or "erotica". Some of
the groups listed were meant for discussion of homosexuality, paedophilia
or other paraphilic activities or sexualities. None of that is illegal;
in fact, discussing such issues is not even restricted in the UK, and such
discussions (although at an intellectually lower level, of course) can be
found on the bottom shelf at any newsagent or supermarket, on the front
pages of the daily newspapers.
But French continued:
"This list is only the starting point and we hope, with the
co-operation and assistance of the industry and your trade organisations,
to be moving quickly towards the eradication of this type of Newsgroup from
the Internet. At the seminar we debated the means of maintaining an up to
date list and you will recall that ISPA volunteered to pool
information and assist in this initiative. However, we are very anxious
that all service providers should be taking positive action now, whether
or not they are members of a trade association."
Only the starting point? Do the police intend to subject the net to
restrictions that no other medium suffers?
French signed off with these words:
"We trust that with your co-operation and self regulation it will not
be necessary for us to move to an enforcement policy."
The police currently have the legal ability to walk into any premises and
remove media - books, magazines, photographs, films, videos, floppy disks,
or computers - without a warrant. The ISPs were being told that if they didn't
fall in line now, they could be visited by the heavy-lifters in the cop
squad and find themselves without hardware or software. Not a
threat to take lightly.
UPDATE: Chief Inspector French, in the latest issue of PC Pro Magazine:
"We support self-regulation by the service providers. But those that
refuse to use the SafetyNet proposals will be liable to be
It's nice to have the meaning of "voluntary" spelled out so clearly.
(4 Oct 96)
- The Observer article - a warning to servers to toe the line
While British netizens were still reeling in shock, the 25 August 1996 issue of
the Observer hit the stands with an astonishing story that implied
that a director of Demon Internet, Clive Feather, was virtually a child
pornographer - because Demon was resisting the idea of blocking newsgroups
as an answer to the child porn problem. "The pedlars of child abuse: We
know who they are. Yet no one is stopping them," proclaimed the
Observer over photographs of Feather ("The school governor who
sells access to photos of child rape") and Julf Helsingius ("The Internet
middleman who handles 90 per cent of all child pornography"), the latter
having been singled out because he ran an anonymous re-mailing service.
The threat could not have been lost on other ISPs - do what you're told,
don't make a fuss, or have your family threatened with similar treatment.
Demon received plenty of hate mail as a result of that article. No one
else wants the same.
The charges against Julf Helsingius, who ran the anonymous re-mailing
service anon.petet.fi in Finland (for free), were no less scurrilous. A
member of the FBI was quoted as saying that 90% of child pornography on
the net came from this re-mailer. Of course, none of it was true:
Helsingius deliberately restricts message size so that binaries are
difficult to send through the server, and the Finnish police had already
investigated him and given him a clean bill of health. More interestingly,
the FBI man turns out never to have claimed to be from the FBI at all nor
to have made the claim attributed to him. His own clarification proliferated
on the net for weeks.
But Helsingius already had other problems back home when the Church of
Scientology and Singapore both leaned on Finnish authorities to get
Helsingius to reveal the names of the people who used his service. When a
court order demanded one such name, he announced that the re-mailer would
be suspended until further notice; Helsingius did not want to violate his
users' confidentiality, not surprisingly when a repressive government like
Singapore's is involved. It is just such government repression that the
re-mailers serve a vital function in exposing, which is why governments
don't like them in the first place.
None of those problems Helsingius was dealing with had anything to do with
child porn, but the Observer immediately claimed that the victory
was theirs for exposing this "child pornographer". That victory, of course,
stops people from getting messages safely to Amnesty International, stops
suicidal people from e-mailling the Samaritans, and stops abuse and cancer
victims from discussing their experiences frankly in Usenet groups.
- Safety-Net and other stories
By early September it was becoming clear that the group that was supposed
to represent the interests of ISPs, the Internet Service Provider's
Association (ISPA), was doing little to counter the Met's attempts at
repression. Steve Bowbrick of Webmedia, with the support of a few others,
set up a meeting at the Chelsea Hotel on 9 September at which Mike Hoskins,
the head of the Clubs & Vice Squad, was one of the speakers. So was Peter
Dawe, late of Pipex and current pro-censorship activist, who said he had
a particular problem with child pornography.
Dawe introduced an idea he said he had only had a few nights earlier, one
to set up a "charity" that would offer ISPs a service, for a fee, of
vetting, rating and reporting material on the net for them. Hotlines and
other methods of controlling net posts were discussed, but most present
seemed to have more problems with the plan than praise for it. FAC's
Avedon Carol expressed immediate concern that, like the British Board of
Film Classification, this "voluntary" submission to Dawe's system would
quickly become mandatory for all. Dawe insisted that he would never be
part of a similar sort of quasi-governmental operation.
But ratings are hardly a new idea, as netizens know. A number of systems
already exist for parents to install filters in their computers to prevent
their children from seeing what is available to adults. Brock Meeks has
noted that many of these are more restrictive - puritanical, perhaps - than
the average parent might hope for.
Demon Internet had already quietly been working on using a ratings system
for their own server, and they had been proposing this as an alternative
to newsgroup blocking. In fact, the ISPs in general were remarkably eager
to suggest "alternative" methods of censorship, naively believing that
they could talk the authorities out of cripplingly stupid methods. This
turned out to be a foolish hope, and by the end of September it was
already clear that every idea mentioned was being treated by pro-censorship
authorities as only one item on a wish-list.
Meanwhile, some ISPs had already removed newsgroups from their servers and
a few have now even announced that they will adhere to the most restrictive
level of ratings systems proposed by RSACi or PICS.
When we originally suggested that the "voluntary" controls
suggested by Peter Dawe would become mandatory, possibly in as little
as a year's time, many people thought we were being alarmist. Yet
one month later, Dawe's "SafetyNet" was already being spoken of as a
standard and treated as virtually mandatory. Although it has not yet
been written into law, it seems unlikely that many ISPs will dare
Privately, most ISPs express strong reservations about "SafetyNet"
(the working title Dawe's plan has been given, although it seems they
intend to change that). But publicly, it is difficult to get them to
say so on the record. Instead, some express concern that Dawe is not
the man to run such a "service", but personal criticisms of the man
seem to be a coded - and therefore ineffective - way of criticizing
the programme. Dawe is just one man who came up with an unfortunate
idea; the ISPs, however, have only themselves to blame if we all end
up stuck with it.
RSACi ratings are increasingly being treated as the (one and only)
ratings standard, and at least one major server has already posted an
announcement that they will expect their users to RSACi-rate their
websites by the end of the year. RSACi is a system created in
America that rates pages by American standards; it should go without
saying that those standards are very different from those of the UK;
some words and subjects that would not be seen in an American daily
newspaper appear in bold front-page headlines in British dailies, for
Bearing in mind that the academic networks - those available to
university students - were the first in Britain to institute
censorship of newsgroups on the net, it is likely that the same
forces will require students to adhere to restrictive ratings. We
could soon find ourselves with far more restrictions on net access
than we have for off-line media in Britain, if RSACi ratings end up
preventing students from reading discussion on the Web or Usenet of
issues that are luridly "discussed" in publications any 10-year-old
can buy off the bottom shelf at a newsagent or grocery store news
CompuServe has already advertised that they adhere to level 1 of
RSACi ratings. RSACi's own material implies that they will be
charging for their services from January 1997. (16 Nov 96)
- What is RSACi?
RSACi is a ratings system designed in America for children's games,
which rates them for objectionable content from level 0 (no
problematical material) to 4 (up to and including XXX or genuinely
violent material). It makes no real distinction between text and
images, fact and fiction, entertainment and academic material,
literal statement and metaphor. More interestingly, it makes no
distinction between very minor words and phrases and hard core
(1 Dec 96)
- Latest "Child Porn On the Net" Scare
There've now been news reports about it on TV and in the papers, with
the usual lack of fact-checking or expert consultation, so now lots
of people have heard about the e-mailed child porn catalogue that so
many net users (primarily usenet posters) received recently.
The junk mail advised recipients that they were receiving this mail
because their net activity made them likely candidates - thus
throwing many people into a tizzy as they wondered what on earth they
had done to deserve such a post. Politicos at first seemed to feel
that people who held their views were being targetted for a sting
(free-speechers as well as militia types thought they were being
victimized). Less political types worried that their names had
somehow landed on a real paedophile list.
But most people quickly concluded that whatever else it was, the post
could not represent a real attempt to sell child pornography. The
"sting" theory was mooted but within a few hours it had already
become clear that the mail wasn't genuine. (Not that the mainstream
The "catalogue" gave a snail-mail address in New York and named the
alleged seller, but netizens quickly noted that the man named was
someone who had been flamed a lot lately on Usenet.
Most of the "catalogue" mail came from two AoL addresses, but America
Online first denied that such accounts existed and then said it
turned out they were real addresses, but the accounts had been hacked
from outside. No one yet knows who did it, and the only
"information" in the spam leads to innocent bystanders.
The question being asked now is whether this was all done merely to
malign one person - the one named in the junk mail - or whether the
hacker had a larger agenda of trying to create problems for the net.
Certainly, that seems to be the result - another "child porn on the
net" scare with no actual child porn behind it. (Nov 96)