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Watching the Internet

It is more than ten years since it was possible to express dissent about the rights and wrongs of controlling the material available on the Net without being identified as either protecting child abusers or being one. Even the most radical of civil liberties organisations flinch at the thought of raising a challenge to the Internet Watch Foundation. Last weekend's discovery that the IWF had added a page from Wikipedia to its filtering list was accordingly the best possible thing that could have happened. It is our first chance since 1995 to have a rational debate about whether the IWF is fulfilling successfully the purpose for which it was set up and the near nationwide coverage of BT's Cleanfeed, despite the problems Cambridge researcher Richard Clayton has highlighted (PDF).

The background: the early 1990s was full of media scare stories about the Internet. In 1996, the police circulated a list of 133 Usenet newsgroups they claimed hosted child pornography, and threatened seizures of equipment. The government threatened regulation. And in that very tense climate, Peter Dawe, the founder of Pipex, called a meeting to announce an initiative he had sketched out on the back of an envelope called SafetyNet, aimed at hindering the spread of child pornography over the Internet. He was willing to stump up £500,000 to get it off the ground.

Renamed the IWF, the system still operates largely like he envisioned it would: it operates a hotline to which the public can report the objectionable material they find. If the IWF believes the material is illegal under UK law and it's hosted in the UK, the ISP is advised to remove it and the police are notified. If it's hosted elsewhere, the IWF adds it to the list of addresses that it recommends for blocking. ISPs must pay to join the IWF to subscribe to the list, and the six biggest ISPs, who have 90 to 95 percent of the UK's consumer accounts, all are members. Cleanfeed is BT's implementation of the list. Of course, despite its availability via Google Groups, Usenet hardly matters any more, and ISPs are beginning to drop it quietly from their offerings as a cost with little return.

The IWF's statement when it eventually removed the block is rather entertaining: it says, essentially, "We were right, but we'll remove the block anyway." In other words, the IWF still believes the image is "potentially illegal" - which provides a helpful, previously unavailable, window into their thinking - but it recognises the foolishness of banning a page on the world's fourth biggest Web site, especially given that the same image can be purchased in large, British record shops in situ on the cover of the 32-year-old album for which it was commissioned.

We've also learned that the most thoughtful debate on these issues is actually available on Wikipedia itself, where the presence of the image had been discussed at length from a variety of angles.

At the free speech end of the spectrum, the IWF is an unconscionable form of censorship. It operates a secret blocklist, it does not notify non-UK sites that they are being blocked, and it operates an equally secret appeals process. Some of this is silly. If it's going to exist the blocklist has to be confidential: a list of Internet links is actions, not words and they can be emailed across the world in seconds, and the link targets downloaded in minutes. Plus, it might be committing a crime: under UK law, it is illegal to take, make, distribute, show, or possess indecent images of children; that includes accessing such images.

At the control end of the spectrum, the IWF is probably too limited. There have been calls for it to add hate speech and racial abuse to its mandate, calls that as far as we know it has so far largely resisted. Pornography involving children - or, in the IWF's preferred terminology, "child sexual abuse images" - is the one thing that most people can agree on.

When the furor dies down and people can consider the matter rationally, I think there's no chance that the IWF will be disbanded. The compromise is too convenient for politicians, ISPs, and law enforcement. But some things could usefully change. Here's my laundry list.

First, this is the first mistake that's come to light in the 12 years of the IWF's existence. The way it was caught should concern us: Wikipedia's popularity and technical incompatibilities between the way Wikipedia protects itself from spam edits and the way UK ISPs have implemented the block list. Other false positives may not be so lucky. The IWF has been audited twice in 12 years; this should be done more frequently and the results published.

The IWF board should be rebalanced to include at least one more free speech advocate and a representative of consumer interests. Currently, it is heavily overbalanced in the direction of law enforcement and child protection representatives.

There should be judicial review and/or oversight of the IWF. In other areas of censorship, it's judges who make the call.

The IWF's personnel should have an infusion of common sense.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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