NEWSMAKER: The web detective - John Carr, Internet advisor, NCH

John Plummer

In 1983, two young Labour Party whippersnappers called Tony Blair and John Carr stood for parliamentary election for the first time. Two decades on, one is now among the most quoted men in the media, the other is the Prime Minister.

Carr's popularity owes little to politics - he trailed in third behind the Conservatives and the SDP in the race to represent Hertford and Bishop's Stortford, left frontline politics and discovered 'the anorak within'.

Now a fully-fledged techie, he is at the leading edge of the war on Britain's paedophiles as internet advisor to children's charity NCH.

It's difficult to think of anyone in the voluntary sector that currently has a higher profile. When NCH released the report Child abuse, child pornography and the internet last month, it set the national news agenda on Radio 4's Today programme and was still the lead story on the BBC News at Ten O'Clock.

Carr's media popularity reveals how much the voluntary sector is shaping the debate on internet child safety. Nearly every campaign or comment can be traced back to Carr, who speaks not only for NCH but also on behalf of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, whose members in-clude NCH, the NSPCC, Barnardo's, ChildLine, the Children's Society, the National Children's Bureau and the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations.

His political background is useful for lobbying. Carr joined the Labour Party in 1969 and was vice-president of the National Union of Students between 1974 and 1975. The NUS president at the time was Charles Clarke, now Education Secretary and best man at Carr's wedding to Glenys Thornton, a baroness in the House of Lords.

In 1981, Carr was elected to the now-defunct Greater London Council and put in charge of the organisation's fledgling computer operations. Given a budget of £30m over five years, he decided he really ought to know more about what he was spending it on. "I made this terrible discovery that lurking inside me was this 'anorak'," says Carr.

A decade later, he was running his own IT consultancy. Then, in 1996, a friend who worked at NCH handed him one of the charity's leaflets on children and the internet. "It was technically inaccurate," says Carr.

"It's very important when dealing with technical subjects to get your facts right, otherwise your enemies will discredit you."

Carr rewrote the leaflet and NCH sounded him out about a job. "They said 'we see the internet as something of great importance to kids, both in terms of education and safety'," he recalls. "At that point I had heard of paedophiles, but it wasn't something that impinged on my conscience much."

These days they are rarely far from his mind. Carr, a father of two, explains his role: "I provide technical advice to charities about how the internet works and what they can reasonably expect internet companies and the Government to do," he says. "And I handle the media inquiries."

One of his biggest achievements was getting a block on indecent pictures of children available online in the UK through Usenet newsgroups, which was the most common source of such images.

Not everyone supported him. Paedophiles are not just a parent's nightmare, they are also providing revenue for someone - and, as the person who downloaded 450,000 indecent images of children proved recently, they are prepared to pay for their fix.

"The battle to get the block implemented was very fierce and very bitter," says Carr. "Elements of the industry said we were exaggerating the danger, or that it was a threat to free speech. Writs were mentioned. It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life."

The law was changed last year to make internet service providers liable for the content they offer subscribers from Usenet newsgroups in the UK, and Carr says industry attitudes are changing. The internet was partly to blame for a 1,500 per cent increase in offences relating to child-abuse images between 1988 and 2001. Yet some people argue that trying to rid the web of paedophiles jeopardises the best hope of catching them. Carr doesn't buy it. "It's a peculiar argument that you create a channel for people to commit crimes so you can arrest them for it," he says.

The battle will continue this year with Carr fronting charity campaigns on mobile phones and pre-installed safety software. "All the issues we have been trying to deal with in the old internet world suddenly become more difficult to deal with when the internet goes mobile," he says. It's not just about surfing the net - phones that take pictures and allow you to capture people on video present new opportunities for child abusers.

Charities will be stepping up their demands for computer companies to only sell machines with pre-installed safety software. "When you buy a car you aren't told 'the seatbelt is in the boot, fit it yourself'," says Carr. "Likewise, with computers the buyer shouldn't have to find the problem and a solution and have to implement it as well."

The police, by comparison with the voluntary sector, appear less vigilant.

Carr sympathises: "They are governed by rules and protocols, we are not. There are limits to what they can say and do in public that don't apply to us." The police, he says, need more resources to tackle the problem, and it is up to the charity sector to make the case for them to get those resources.

Child abuse is a nasty area to work in. But while other sectors are unwilling or unable to do as much as they'd like, charities are taking the lead.

"The voluntary sector at its best should be at the forefront, campaigning for changes in policy and resourcing," says Carr. And each time he appears on TV, it is another sign it is doing just that.


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