- 9 Dec 08, 09:29 GMT
It must have been a long and difficult meeting. All day on Tuesday, the Internet Watch Foundation was taking calls from journalists like me and promising a new statement about what must have been the most controversial decision in its history - the blacklisting of a Wikipedia page about the heavy metal band Scorpions. That decision had sparked fury not just among Wikipedians - those people in the UK who found themselves unable to edit any pages in the online encyclopedia as a result - but among a wider public concerned about what they saw as covert censorship. On this blog alone, we had more responses than on any other previous post - more than 200 within 24 hours - and the overwhelming number were critical of the IWF.
The statement finally appeared on Tuesday evening, revealing that the watchdog's board had removed the Wikipedia page featuring the image of a naked child from its blacklist. But this was not a total climb-down - the statement starts by reiterating that the image in question "is potentially in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978." It then goes on to concede that the picture has been in the public domain for a long time - it was of course first published in the 1970s and has apparently been reproduced in a number of books and on other websites.
The IWF admits that its actions have only made the "Virgin Killer" album cover all the more visible to millions of web users. Its objective is to minimise the availability of "indecent images of children", and it has had precisely the opposite effect. It finishes by apologising to Wikipedia and its users for the "unintended consequences" of its actions.
The Wikimedia Foundation responded in similar vein, thanking the IWF for making a swift decision. But the foundation's chief counsel Mike Godwin said the incident "underscores the need for transparency and accountability in the processes of the Internet Watch Foundation and similar bodies around the world".
So where does that leave the debate about internet censorship? The IWF's critics have been vehement in their denunication of the body - there has been talk of "Orwellianism" and comparisons with China and other countries where internet access is strictly controlled. Isn't this a little bit over the top? I didn't notice anyone being marched to jail for viewing that page. The whole affair seems to have got the web - how shall I put this? - a little over-excited. Here's one message I received: "We won't be boilled frogs. Once you start down the path to the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny."
What the incident has done is shine a light on the workings of a watchdog of whose existence many were ignorant. The criticism is that it operates in secret, it is self-appointed, and that, in the words of one of my correspondents "it can control what we see, whether illegal or not". But it can only act as a censor if the ISPs who are its members agree to enforce its blacklist. It was their automatic blocking of the Wikipedia page which meant that users ended up getting "page not found" messages rather than being informed of the censorship, so perhaps they should be the ones answering for their actions.
And not everyone agrees that the IWF was in the wrong in the first place. Struan Robertson, a lawyer whose "Out-Law" blog covers web legal issues, points out that Wikipedia itself indulges in a form of censorship with a "blacklist" of people from certain IP addresses who are forbidden from changing Wikipedia's pages. Mr Robertson says it is no use telling the IWF and the ISPs to wait for a court ruling on the legality of the image: "Web hosts must not wait for an image to be declared unlawful by a court when they receive a complaint, albeit only a court can declare an image unlawful. If they wait, there is every chance that the declaration will come at their own trial."
It certainly appears that the IWF should have been aware that acting against one of the most popular sites on the internet was bound to cause an uproar. So the case for greater transparency in the Internet Watch Foundation's procedures seems pretty obvious.
But it strikes me that the critics too need to answer some questions. Is there any need to block access to child abuse images online? If so, should it be done by the Internet Watch Foundation or another body? Or should we just ask the police to watch out for these images - and let ISPs be sued if they fail to spot them?
Mind you, I've learnt one very important thing from this whole affair. The "Scorpions" are not an "obscure" German heavy metal band, but an enduringly popular rock phenomenon. Sorry.
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