FACT: one-third of you think web access shouldn't be regulated in any way.

This article appears in the August 06 issue of PC Advisor, available in all good newsagents now.

Recent high-profile cases of internet censors in China may have grabbed the headlines, but look a little deeper and you'll see they're at work closer to home.

The importance of the internet as a means of disseminating information and ideas has been brought sharply into focus over the past few months. Increased attention has been paid to the many instances of web censorship by governments around the world.

This emotive subject was set ablaze when the Chinese government forced Google into accepting that a lot of website content isn’t suitable for consumption by the Chinese nation. The search-engine giant dutifully genuflected in the direction of Beijing.

Google executives pounded their beanbags indignantly for a while, but eventually caved. Chinese Googlers may no longer read web pages deemed unhealthy, but the company is firmly ensconced in the land of the dragon. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: "It is normal for countries to manage the internet in accordance with law and to guide its development in a healthy, orderly fashion."

This started me thinking about the subject of internet freedom in general. Many nations, including Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Nepal, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan and Vietnam, censor the net. But what about nearer to home: how do other Europeans view the subject? The fact is that web censorship is alive and well – and in a country near you.

In June 2004 BT began using Cleanfeed technology to block access to a list of illegal child pornography websites compiled by the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation). It was the first known instance of attempted mass censorship of the web in a Western democracy. The IWF operates a hotline for members of the public to report questionable online material. The pages are reviewed and, if their content is illegal under UK laws, a report is passed to the police. The IWF asks UK ISPs to remove the offending material.

Across the Channel in France, a court has ordered Yahoo to restrict access to any Nazi material available through its websites to French citizens. Major search engines in Germany, meanwhile, have subscribed to an organisation named Voluntary Self-Control for Multimedia Service Providers. These companies filter websites based on a list created by Germany’s Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons.

In the UK, most ISPs already block illegal sites, or plan to do so by the end of the year. Home Office minister Vernon Croaker recently told parliament that by the end of 2007 all ISPs offering broadband internet connectivity must put in place measures to prevent access to websites identified as containing illegal images of child abuse.

Most of these measures are aimed at eliminating child pornography – and no one can complain about that. But the concern being shown by many people at the apparent ease with which governments can censor the web is an issue. Most of us like to think we're quite capable of deciding what is or isn't appropriate content.

The freedom to surf at will is considered a basic internet 'right' – at least in most countries.

The results of a recent techadvisor.co.uk poll were interesting. In response to the statement 'Governments should bar access to websites that have illegal content', almost a third disagreed, choosing the option: 'The internet shouldn't be regulated in any way'. Around 27 percent said they might agree if there was a public watchdog to oversee the situation. 'Illegal means illegal' was picked by 25 percent, while 17.5 percent weren't sure.

Postscript: in this piece, Peter Thomas discusses online censorship and the work of the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation). Although the article is factually correct, the Foundation has asked us to clarify that it tackles only illegal online material and is not involved in censorship on the grounds of taste or morality. We are happy to do so.