The public is rightly concerned about food quality and its effect on the population. “Should junk food carry a government health warning?” – so far the government has said “no”. It is not that the government has no interest in public health: on the contrary, there have long been stringent standards and regulations governing the sale, delivery and preparation of food.

This does make sense: whether serving a hamburger or pate de fois gras, the first priority must be to ensure that neither is contaminated or noxious. The legislation of content is also far more difficult to nail down – as one man’s junk food could be another man’s staple diet.

What is strange, however, is that quite the opposite applies on the Internet. Here there is so much more concern about content than about delivery.

This year’s party conference headlines focused again on the potential dangers of Internet porn, but we heard little about the cleanliness of the channel delivering it. Not that there is an outright consensus on the importance of content: where to draw the line between acceptable titillation and obscenity, and whether there should be censorship online. Again, one man’s meat could be another man’s poison.

Surely all would agree that a download that contains a virus is dangerous in itself – whether the download is a cartoon of a cute kitten, or a painting of the Last Supper.

Without wanting to denigrate or downplay the debate about what should or should not be allowed or restricted on the Internet, surely we should also be discussing legislation to address the standards of hygiene in the delivery train? Some might argue that a porn video containing a virus is delivering “just desserts”, but this is surely no reason to turn a blind eye?

What redress does a user have if their provider allows excessive levels of spam or malware to be delivered? How many man-hours does a nation waste every day clearing its in-trays of junk, being deceived into reading it, or even falling victim to scams? What is the financial loss to the nation from the malware that does get through?

The Internet now occupies a central role in nearly all business and social activities: soon it will be recognised that Internet hygiene is becoming every bit as important to the nation as food hygiene. The public will want their providers to be certified for clean delivery to accepted standards.

Are We Asking For The Impossible?

The enterprise intranet does its best to provide a “clean zone” – using a combination of firewalls, intruder detection and prevention systems together with strategic deep packet inspection to minimize the chances of malware entering and circulating around the site. If this is possible, then surely more can be done to reduce malware in the worldwide web?

Just how effective are these defence measures? The real assurance comes not from knowing that you have installed the latest security devices, but rather from testing the network to see just how well it stands up to cyber attack.

Today’s high-end network test systems will not only replicate every form of attack, they will also superimpose them and combine them with every level of realistic and extreme traffic conditions.

It is one thing to recognise and nullify a virus on a quiet network, and quite another to detect and isolate it when massively overloaded by real or “denial of service” traffic.

What’s more, these tests can be run automatically, and out of hours if needed, leaving network operators free to concentrate on core business. Nor do they need to spend time updating the system for the daily flood of new viruses and malware, because the most sophisticated test systems are connected to a Cloud database kept constantly up to date with the latest threats and means to detect them.

So the tools are there for cleaning up the Internet. Legislating how they should be applied, and deciding what standards should be demanded, would be a major task – but it has already been achieved in the food chain. Even the smallest back street café or mobile snack bar is expected to meet government standards of acceptable hygiene – and faces penalties or even closure if these are not met. Should we expect anything less from our service providers?

Whatever content is being delivered from the Internet, it should meet basic standards of cleanliness. It should be free of viruses, worms and other forms of malware. Deciding where to draw the line on junk mail is more tricky, but again there is an analogy with the food chain: the government does lay down rules about the way food is sourced, and how that is labelled. Junk mail from your favourite supermarket might be irritating, but nothing like as bad as unwanted love notes from Russia or promises from Nigeria.

So what about the great debate on content? To censor or not to censor? Whatever way the argument turns in future, it would be a lot easier to enforce its decision on an Internet that had already been regulated to ensure hygienic delivery, one that had all the necessary screening systems already in place.