Firewall UK starts to bite

This weekend’s biggest internet story is without doubt about an album cover deemed obscene leading to content on Wikipedia being banned by British ISPs. While a minor story in itself, it has some profound implications for the internet and for freedom of speech in the UK.

The album cover – from a 1970s German rock band called the Scorpions – apparently features a naked young girl on it. Despite having been around for over three decades, it came to the attention of the self-regulated Internet Watch Foundation on Friday, which placed it on its blacklist which is used by at least six British ISPs.

As a result, anyone trying to access the page on Wikipedia containing the album art gets a message “we have blocked this page because, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), it contains indecent images of children or pointers to them; you could be breaking UK law if you viewed the page.” Or they may just get 404 errors or blank pages.

It seems extraordinary that an album made 32 years ago could suddenly be found to fall under the auspices of the Protection of Children Act 1978 as amended in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which:

makes it an offence to take, make, permit to be taken, distribute, show, possess with intent to distribute, and advertise indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children under the age of 18. The ‘making’ of such images includes downloading, that is, making a copy of a child sexual abuse image on a computer, so, in the UK, accessing such content online is a serious criminal offence

according to the IWF on their website in an article updated on November 28. The image is not illegal in the United States, and the album has never been banned in the UK and is still available in shops.

According to the Guardian: Sarah Robertson, director of communications for the IWF, said the decision to ban the page, taken after consulting the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) agency, was being reviewed. “The assessment was done in partnership with law enforcement … the Scorpions image was deemed to be one on a scale of one to five, where one is the least offensive.”

“The question is how far this episode challenges current UK practice around censoring content online,” th Guardian article goes on to quote Becky Hogge of campaign organisation the Open Rights Group.

The BBC blog also has an interesting piece on the ban by Rory Cellan-Jones.

The placing of Wikipedia – one of the internet’s most visited sites – on the British ISPs’ watchlist has already had major impacts, as now all traffic to Wikipedia from the ISPs is being channelled through a very small number of firewalls. In essence that means that most UK traffic to Wikipedia now appears to come from just six or seven IP addresses, which is the form of identification used by Wikipedia to control anonymous access to the editing controls of the online encyclopaedia. Because of that, those IP addresses – and hence most UK users – are now shut out of the editing (although presumably they can still create accounts and edit that way – assuming the IWF action doesn’t interfere with the login process.)

Ironically, some users working in the public sector are blocked from seeing the image through their domestic ISP … but can access it from work via the Government’s internet access.

I’ve seen the image (I didn’t go looking for it, but it was in one of the news stories about the fuss) and frankly it’s not worth a fraction of the fuss. I’m obviously not in any way in favour of child porn, but this is very far away from the type of ‘porn’ that the Act had in mind – or should have had in mind – when it was drafted. If this is child porn actionable under the Act, then parents everywhere face mass arrests for taking any sort of pictures of their children in any state of undress.

Leaving aside the argument about what is and what isn’t child porn, and whether or not people should be able to access it, it’s the implications of the IWF and ISPs’ weekend actions that really concern me. Think it’s not going to affect you? Well it’s already reported this morning that Amazon now faces similar action and blacklisting because of the presence of the album for sale. If Amazon – and presumably other music retailers – is locked out at the peak time of year then we’ll see a mass of complaints form the public – and quite possibly the mother of all lawsuits for unlawful infringement of trade issued against all and sundry.

Rather naively, I’ve always thought that in the UK, freedom of speech was such that we could never have the type of draconian situation that we saw in the summer Olympics where China could decide which sites were and were not accessible to athletes, journalists, politicians and of course ordinary people. I thought the internet – designed for surviving a nuclear war, don’t forget – was robust enough that any attempts to block or control would be hopelessly ineffectual.

So the real shock of this to me is not about a questionable image or the technical problems of Wikipedia, but instead is the realisation that we have sleepwalked into a set-up where there is a system in place for controlling access to any or all information online at the flick of a switch. The controls have been progressively put in place as a result of slowly incremental legislation passed by a sleepwalking House of Commons with scant technical understanding of what they’re doing, under the misleading crusading banners of “decency” and “anti-terrorism”. We’re starting to see these measures link up and assert themselves and finally beginning to see what they are capable of when used in the real world. And it’s not a pretty sight.

You can argue that the situation is not the same as China, because it’s a charitable organisation like the IWF and not a government bureaucrat in charge; and no one is forcing the ISPs to comply. Well – why is it better that our national internet access is controlled by an unaccountable, unregulated bunch of moralistic do-gooders? And as for no one forcing the ISPs to comply – that’s set to change in the next year with the government already planning to enact new laws to put the IWF into exactly that mandatory gatekeeper position.

The Government probably thinks it can get away with it as long as it doesn’t look as though politicians’ fingerprints are anywhere too close, but the IWF will respond to government edicts about what’s right and proper with alacrity. We’ve already heard Hazel Blears attack political blogs as “a dangerous corrosion in our political culture” so how long before the IWF decrees those to be against the law or corrupting our morals and do a blanket ban of any such blogs? Sounds like a perfectly proper, moral argument being presented to do just that, after all. Which could be any blog disagreeing with the party of the day … Now is it starting to sound just a little bit like China?

Yes, this is all getting a little overcooked and alarmist. But then I’ve always been something of a zealot about freedom of speech and about loathing the surveillance society, to the point where I thought that my occasional rants were getting a little over the top even for me – don’t get me started about CCTV and identity cards, for example. And yet here I am today, caught out and aghast at how far it’s alreadt gone: it’s far beyond my own over-the-top rants. Now I’m thinking that I’ve been too quiet, laid back and ambivalent about this, rather than the opposite.

So I ask you: think of the number one thing you would hate to lose online. And now realise, there’s a very good chance that it can and will be taken away because of the situation we’re sleepwalking into.

Want to wait till it happens? Or do something about it now?

UPDATE: IWF has reversed its decision and removed the Wikipedia page from its blacklist. The IWF states:

“in light of the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability, the decision has been taken to remove this webpage from our list.”

Just as well, because it was reportedly getting swamped with “helpful” tips about where the same image was available on a load of other retail and music sites. Amazon US had previously removed the image from the product page of the Scorpions album to ward off the danger of getting blacklisted at the busiest time of year, but many sites remained that hadn’t.


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