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IWF Censoring Wikipedia Furore

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the decision of the Internet Watch Foundation to censor a Wikipedia article about a Scorpions album from 1976 by putting the address of the page on its blacklist, claiming that the album cover is child pornography.

A number of ISPs use the IWF’s blacklist to block access to known potentially illegal sites which may include child porn.  Those ISPs are now reported as preventing their customers from accessing the Wikipedia website.

The Register posted its own report as well as a follow up about online retailers’ efforts to remove the “potentially illegal” (in the words of the IWF) image from their websites.  As ever, the comments pages following those articles raise some very valid points.

Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent has written a report on this and some of the comments thereafter do make some valid points and ask important questions too.

Struan Robertson, the editor of out-law.com, has posted a vociferous defence of the IWF’s actions on The Register and in so doing decided to highlight one of the comments made on Rory Cellan-Jones’ report.  A pity he didn’t choose to address the issues raised by a number of other comments, both there, on The Register and on The Guardian’s technology blog.  The comments page following Mr Robertson’s article makes some interesting reading, and most of it seems to be disagreeing with him, so it seems I’m not the only one to think Mr Robertson’s got the wrong end of the stick.

What about anyone who owns a copy of the album?  Are they now in possession of child porn?  The image has been described as “potentially illegal” so perhaps, perhaps not.  What about anyone who has looked for the image to see what all the kerfuffle is about?  Have they downloaded child porn?  Perhaps, perhaps not.

The legality of the image has yet to be determined by a judge.  All we have to go on is the IWF and their police advisors.  Considering that the Police are in a state of confusion about the new Extreme Pornography laws can their judgement really be relied upon?  Surely it is for the CPS and a judge to make that judgement.

Nobody is suggesting that the IWF does not have noble aims.  What has been highlighted here is that the IWF’s action looks to have been far too heavy handed.  It has resulted in its reputation taking a battering – bad news always travels further and faster than good news on the internet – the image they sought to censor becoming one of the most popular on the internet and questions being asked about where the IWF’s actions will lead.

Anyone accused of child pornography will put up a robust defence against such accusations, which is just what Wikipedia has done. Had the IWF bothered to get in touch with Wikipedia directly things may well have turned out differently.  There is a school of thought which suggests the IWF has picked on Wikipedia rather than, say, Amazon, HMV or other online retailers because they would surely have far more aggressive lawyers.

There needs to be an open discussion about the IWF. Yes, it has noble aims and claims to be supported by government departments but what status does the IWF have in law?  If it is a public body then surely its conduct should be transparent, accountable and its decisions open to challenge?  I have yet to see anything to prove to me that the IWF is little more than a self-appointed guardian.  Anyone who decides to become a self-appointed guardian is just the kind of person who should be subject to transparency and accountability, however noble their aims.

BoingBoing has an interesting article on how the Cleanfeed firewall (which is preventing access to Wikipedia for a number of ISPs) works.

One of the standard responses of the pro-censorship brigade is “So you’re advocating uncensored access to child porn?”  Cory Doctorow’s comment below the article addresses that issue clearly.  I’ll quote a bit for you:

No one is advocating free access to child porn.

However, Cleanfeeds doesn’t prevent people who are looking for child porn to gain access to it (the cops who specialise in child porn will tell you that trading takes place on private, closed P2P networks, often hardened with crypto — Cleanfeeds doesn’t and can’t prevent this).

What I believe is that Cleanfeeds should operate like HM Customs. If you try to import something questionable into the UK (say, a copy of Alan Moore’s brilliant LOST GIRLS, which explores the subject of pubescent sexuality with art and sensitivity), then HM Customs may try to stop the book from entering the country.

When they do, they will notify both the importer and the exporter of their decision. It will be made public. If anyone objects, they can appeal the decision, also in public.

This is the rule of law. This is transparency. This is due process. This works.

This is not how Cleanfeeds works.

Letting a secret group of people decide what you can and can’t read according to secret criteria is not a good basis for creating a free society. And it doesn’t stop child porn, either.

The IWF would do well to read that last point.

I know people who have been abused as children.  I know people who have had the very real threat of paedophiles near their children.  One of those people asked “Why isn’t more being done to stop the sexualisation of young children by consumer products like [certain] dolls and clothes like short skirts for 8 year old girls being sold in [certain] stores?  That’s a greater threat to childrens’ safety than an album cover”.

Where is this leading?

Remember in 1995 when television newsreader Julia Somerville was questioned by police about allegedly pornographic photos of their daughter having a bath?

What about stepfathers?  Am I now to leave the house when my other half’s son has a bath or has his nappy changed because, in the views of some people and organisations, I might get aroused by that?  What, then, am I to do when I’m left at home to look after him and his nappy needs changing?

“There are many stepfathers out there who are now extremely anxious of their role,” says Erica De’Ath, chief executive of the National Association for Stepfamilies. “Is it appropriate for them to give their stepchild a kiss or a hug? That kind of doubt can be very damaging to the child.”

That kind of doubt can also be very damaging to the new stepfather.

The IWF’s actions has opened a very complex and emotive debate.  One which is now being examined by John Ozimek at The Register… (a few quotes here)

Can the IWF now return to business as usual? Or do the cracks that have appeared over the last 48 hours suggest an organisation and an approach that is no longer fit for purpose: a confidence trick that remained aloft only so long as nobody asked what was keeping it there.

As critics of the great Aussie firewall have commented, to focus only on web content is to ignore over half the problem.

Then, too, there is growing resentment of the way that the authorities have closed ranks to make debate on issues of child “safety” a taboo issue.

According to the IWF, no one has ever questioned its judgements before. No doubt this would continue to be the case, so long as it confined its attentions to sites and imagery that are clearly produced by child abusers for child abusers.

Gone is its record for 100 per cent undisputed blocking. Gone, too, is its reputation for being the undisputed good guy. Many people have looked at the image in question and have taken the view that it is not porn, or indecent, or abuse. Having made that judgement, they have started to ask questions about other imagery that the IWF has sought to block.

This is the story of The Emperor’s new clothes retold for the internet age. The IWF has taken a hit, though for now the damage is mostly amongst a technically-savvy audience that already had its doubts about the operation. It comes away from this weekend looking inflexible, reactionary, authoritarian and ever so slightly shifty.

The IWF is left with two serious problems. This episode highlights major weaknesses, both in the capability of the IWF to fulfil its remit and in its ability to do so without future collisions with the IT community.

The IWF has been damaged by this incident.  Noble intentions can’t save you from the consequences of making poor decisions.  There is a discussion to be had and there are questions to be answered.

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