Rory Cellan-Jones

Wikipedia - IWF backs down

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's a half-hearted climbdown from the IWF, but it will do as a start. Now we need to have a proper debate about the principles of the IWF, and the use of their blacklist by the ISPs.

    There seem to be three main problems that came together to make this such a huge mistake:

    - The law. The "Protection of Children Act" is promoted as being against the abuse of children, but is written from a Whitehouse-esqe view of what images are 'indecent'. The test, when considering an image like this one, should never have been 'Is it arousing?', but simply 'Does it show someone being abused?'. If there's no abuse (as there clearly wasn't in this case) then there should be no question of illegality.

    - The IWF:
    --It's useful to have an organisation that pursues child abuse images online, but it shouldn't be a secretive undemocratic, unaccountable private charity.
    --It shouldn't block material on the basis that it is 'potentially' illegal; it should restrict itself to clear-cut cases of abuse.
    --It should understand how the network it seeks to police actually works; it's a nonsense to suggest that they couldn't add the image URL to the blacklist and that the only option was to take out the referring page(s) instead.
    --It absolutely must not, ever again, attempt to block access to critical news coverage of its own mistakes.

    - The ISPs. There is sometimes an excuse for blocking content online, but there's never an excuse for lying about it. With the exception of Plusnet (so, some points for them) the major ISPs faked error messages or blank pages, claiming them to be from Wikipedia. Their customers need to consider whether they're happy to stay with an internet provider that lies to them about what's actually on the internet, and intercepts their traffic, watches the contents, and changes parts of it. Would you ever trust access to online shopping or banking over an ISP that does that?

  • Comment number 2.

    It seems the IWF made the correct decision. I received an email from the hotline manager at the IWF yesterday, informing me of this press release. Hopefully, this incident will spark debate on Internet censorship in a wider context.

  • Comment number 3.

    So far, so sensible, but what about the cover art for Seventies supergroup Blind Faith (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Rick Gretch). It features a pre-pubescent girl, naked from the waist up, holding a silver model plane that is more than somewhat suggestive. It caused a mild publicity ripple at the time. In fact I have the album on my desk as I type. Should I burn it, or is it just over-indulgent seventies art?

  • Comment number 4.

    Or, put another way, should oversight of the internet be done by one body, established for that purpose, or should each ISP independently spend their resources sitting with lawyers haggling over what's legal or not, with all the contradictions and inequalities that would entail.

  • Comment number 5.

    "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. "

    Oh? So no one goes to jail for viewing images assesed by the IWF as being "Level 1"? What the hell kind of talk is this?

    You are a disgrace Cellan Jones. You're out-argued and out-thought on this issue, and all you can do in response is mock and belittle - what you can't spin or mock away, Rory, is that the UK now has a built in architecture of censorship that can be turned to any purpose at the bash fo a keyboard. Apologists for censorship like yourself will pathetically murmur that so long as you aren't rbeaking the law then you have nothing to fear - but dont' you think they say that in China too?

    You were suprised by the number of anti IWF comments? Shocked by the anger of people who finally realise they are being censored?

    Oh - and don't try to suggest this is a coluntary arrangement when you know FULL WELL that Home Office minister Vernon Coaker insisted that ISPs adopt the IWF's cleanfeed list. This is a problem of this government's making - and yet I hear not one word from them, and only gibberish from you.

    If you want to read some sense, go take a look at the articles, and the comments beneath them, at CiF. Try this one from January this year which predicts just such a scandal as this, and explains why the gentlemen's agreements that the ISPs, government and IWF have are profoundly undemocratic and illiberal.

    IF we are to have censorship of the internet inside our borders, and attempts to censor the internet coming into our borders, then this should be on a legislated basis. It needs to be transparent, challengeable, consistent and sensible. it is none of those thinsg now - it's only this case that has even revealed to most people that it even exists! The BBC didnt' even report this U turn on the news last night, or Today this morning - despite reporting the original story, defaming wikipedia as they did... Why the low profile? Don't like to see fellow liberal-lefties screwing up?

    Maybe you feel quite happy to have an unelected and unaccountable body censoring you Rory, most people don't. Maybe you trust this government not to absue the architecture they have built to censor their own little secrets - again, most people dont'.

    But you owe it to us - your employers - to treat those concerns seriously, and report acccordingly. This trivialisation of such a serious matter is unacceptable.

  • Comment number 6.

    In a way, I wonder if the IWF's U-turn isn't more damaging than their original ruling.

    (Personally, I don't think they should have banned the image, but ...)

    If the image fitted their criteria and triggered a ban, I find it difficult to understand how a newly-understood context can reverse the decision.

    It's not that they've done a U-turn on the image criteria, but feels like they've just decided it's not in their interests - or anyone elses - to keep banning it given the mass interest. Not a very convincing result.

    IWF needs to be robust, and have a strong backbone. It also needs to be trusted as authorative and reliable. And like all of us, IWF needs to learn from its mistakes and become stronger and be clearer in its determinations.

  • Comment number 7.

    The great issue in any kind of media regulation (which is what this is) is the triumph of process over wisdom. It is hard for rules and processes to determine the context and intention of material; it's just as daft as rules saying no swearing or bad language on TV before the watershed.

    An intelligent human being needs to take the decision, not based on a check box system, but on sage consideration of whether there is the real capacity to cause harm to children.

    And this is the internet and not TV, so this is not about trying to avoid offence. Being offensive is allowed. As @_Ewan_ says above there has to be clear cut evidence of illegality.

  • Comment number 8.

    This decision has really confused things in a way that is bound to come back and bite IWF later.

    They did not decide that the image was not illegal - their appeal process supported the original decision.

    Instead they decided that things were too hot for them and backed down.

    So now, instead of applying an objective set of rules (is it illegal under UK law - admittedly a ruling with a degree of subjectivity, but an area in which IWF are probably the people who can credibly claim the most experience is guessing at what a jury would hold), they now have a second level of decision about how much flack the organisation will receive.

    I think their credibility has suddenly flown away.

  • Comment number 9.

    @FrankFisher: WTF? You're calling the IWF's moralistic censors 'liberals'? If anyone's thinking is lacking in clarity here it's yours.

  • Comment number 10.

    "WTF? You're calling the IWF's moralistic censors 'liberals'?"

    In the perjorative sense _Ewan_. They think they're liberals, as the BBC does, but they're happy to censor cartoons etc.

    You're right though "liberal-left" is a contradiction, it's just a handy label for these damn soggy lefties who can't conceive of an instance in which they might be wrong.

  • Comment number 11.

    In any democracy no organisation that it is not sanctioned by the state should have the power over what publics should and should not see.

    wikipedia is a respected resource of information, the moment you start to restrict any information IS censorship and can not be accepted under any circumstances.

  • Comment number 12.

    I wonder what will happen when the IWF starts enacting the same service for the Government's "extreme pornography" ban next year.

    Although as Jonathan Snow on Channel 4 put it, their current mechanism does leave them wide open to abuse from any pressure group that chooses to do so.

  • Comment number 13.

    "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."

    Who is implying they're going to court? Wikipedia? Wasn't Jimmy Wales threatening to take IWF to a court over the censoring so that doesn't seem mean much.

    The IWF lost all credibility when they failed to contact Wikimedia Foundation once the image was reported. IWFs complete lack of knowledge of the way Mediawiki software works still left the image viewable, anyway.

  • Comment number 14.

    I belive that Tony Benn had a series of questions to be put to any "authority", of which the gist was:

    1. What powers do you have?
    2. Where did you get them?
    3. How can we get rid of you?

    I believe these questions should now be asked of the IWF. Also what else have they secretly blocked at their own whim that shoud not have been?

  • Comment number 15.

    Also to the point about Wikimedia being hypocritical as it runs its own blacklist.

    Things like vandalism is prevalent online just as it is offline. Society tries to prevent people from committing vandalism, with law & punishment.

    The difference with IWF and Mediawiki is the openness with which they operate.

  • Comment number 16.

    Rory, you make some good points and some not-so-good points.

    You're absolutely right that the real blame here lies with the ISPs that choose to use the IWF list, rather than with the IWF per se. And particularly so if they don't even have the decency to admit to users that they are censoring them. Simply returning a 404 page is extremely dishonest.

    I'm happy to say that my ISP doesn't use the IWF list, but if it did, I would be looking for a new ISP right now and letting my existing ISP know why.

    However, I think you are absolutely wrong to call the reaction "over the top". The boiled frog analogy is appropriate. Censorship of the internet is an extremely worrying thing that we should resist at all costs. I find it particularly worrying that it should start with trying to censor an image of a naked pre-pubescent girl. Only a perverted paedophile would complain about that, right?

    Wrong. There is an important principle at stake here, which we ignore at our peril. Once government gets the idea that censorship might be OK, where does it end? Maybe the next step is to censor any website posting leaked Home Office documents? What about websites critical of government policy?

  • Comment number 17.

    Some comments on points Rory made in a semi Q n A form.

    `Is there any need to block access to child abuse images online?`

    YES. Not just my view but that of Parliament, all the main political parties and the majority of the public. (Those that disagree with this should campaign to change the law.)

    `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.`

    Sites that host child pornography or indecent images of children can hold many thousands. It is unrealistic to expect a court to rule on each and every one of them. And there can be many such sites, many run by organised gangs. The police and IWF act in accordance with guidelines laid down by The Protection of Children Act 1978 (which bans indecent images of children) and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 Definitive Guidelines that gives the legal definitions of how such images are to be judged.

    `If so, should it be done by the Internet Watch Foundation or another body?`

    Any other body would simply resemble the IWF. The IWFs mission statement is: `To work in partnership with internet service providers, telecommunication companies, mobile operators, software providers, the police, Government and the public to minimize the availability of online illegal content, particularly child sexual abuse images.`

    `Or should we just ask the police to watch out for these images?`

    `The IWF has positive links to most British Police Forces including the Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit, Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Greater Manchester Police Abusive Images Unit and several other police units. The police provide input into the image assessment element of our training.`
    If the police set up a dedicated centre themselves it would simply resemble the IWF.

    `and let ISPs be sued if they fail to spot them?`

    One of the reasons the ISPs set up the IWF.
    `The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was founded in 1996 by the UK Internet service provider (ISP) community to act as a self-regulatory body to combat criminal content, most especially child pornography`

    Those that think it should be left to the police to raid and shut down such sites should realise that they operate from many different countries, although international police efforts are made to combat them.

    One issue this has raised is how the IWF deals with a mainstream website (something it normally hasn’t had to do before) when it is thought an issue needs to be addressed.
    Perhaps a better way of addressing the Wikipedia page issue would have been to contact the Wikipedia editors and entering into discussions with them (but with a warning that an ISP block was an option) rather than treating them in the same way that child porn sites normally are. I am however disappointed that an image of the cover is still displayed on that page and feel that Wikipedia and the IWF should still be in discussions over this.

    On the censorship/freedom of speech issue, rather than discussing the Scorpions album cover lets have a blog debate just on: `should child pornography be allowed on the Internet?` From yesterdays blog debate some clearly do, bring the debate into the open.

    I also notice that Amazon today is showing an alternative album cover (featuring the band) for the Virgin Killer album, they haven’t reverted to the one for the `nude child` one. Also that some of the album`s variations (e.g. audio cassette) are now marked `discontinued by manufacturer`, a change from yesterday. It looks as if the music industry has quietly formed it own opinion about the offending cover.

  • Comment number 18.


    Mr Benn's questions perhaps get to the nub of it.

    Hey, IWF...
    1. What powers do you have?
    Answer: The power to create a list of websites that fit criteria we consider to be significant, and to provide this list to ISPs.
    2. Where did you get them?
    Answer: Through use of standard human faculties, and database software.
    3. How can we get rid of you?
    Answer: You can escape our sphere of influence by signing up with an ISP that does not use our list.
    3a. But FrankFisher screams hysterically that the government forces ISPs to use the list.
    Answer: Well, what powers does the Government have, how did it get them, and how can we get rid of it?

    Ah, so the IWF has no real power. Its the ISPs that do any enforcing of censorship.

    Got it.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think the main reason that this blew up so massively isn't just down to there being censorship, but how it was handled.

    I personally don't like censorship in any way, but if it has to exist ("Think of the children", etc) then I can certainly think of better implementations. Mainly down to being more open about it.

    1) It needs to be official. With an official list of what they've investigated.
    Like the BBFC, even though I don't like them I do like that they list online their decisions.

    2) Honesty in errors.
    ISPs should not fake error messages. A "This page is banned" or similar page would be preferable. Anti-censorship I may be, but I do appreciate honesty.
    Besides, by pretending to be a technical issue it can waste troubleshooting time.

    3) Communication with the site in question. IWF lost face here because they didn't communicate with anybody involved. They may be "fighting the good fight", but they really made a major PR screwup here.

    4) Minimise the effect of transparent proxies.
    Forcing everybody through transparent proxies and not always setting the correct errors really escalated the problem here.

    The IWF have unwittingly come over as 'Big Brother' in this instance. And this can only hurt their efforts.

  • Comment number 20.

    Rory, you're being naive about the dangers of censorship.

    Should we wait until it is as bad as China before we react? No. Censorship needs to be nipped in the bud.

    14. @ablackadder is absolutely right to quote Tony Benn here.

  • Comment number 21.


    Think the problem lies that they cannot censor the internet in a honest manner. Once a censored url is known it is trivial to retrieve it via essentially another proxy.

    I didn't test it when the censoring was in effect but I'd bet that using for example would have bypassed the censorship.

    That's why this kind of censorship is really quite pointless from a technical stand point. It can only work by not being honest, and pretending it doesn't exist.

  • Comment number 22.

    There is a distinct differance to Wikimedia's blacklist and the IWF's

    One is saying "sorry, you can't use our service."

    The other is "sorry, we don't want you to use their service."

    Its no different than having a lock on your front door. You are stopping other people from coming into your property.

  • Comment number 23.

    SheffTim asks: "should child pornography be allowed on the Internet?"

    That's really not the issue here. The question is whether a secretive and unaccountable body should be able to declare something to be 'child pornography' and then have it made inaccessible without any oversight, without any consideration of context, without any communication with the 'offending' site, and without a basic understanding of how the internet works.

    And I think the answer to that question is a pretty clear 'No'.

  • Comment number 24.

    In reply to 18, SkinnyGadfly seems to have misunderstood the questions (perhaps the mention of Tony Benn leads him to assume I am some kind of radical commie).

    The poster at 23 sums up better what the implications of the questions are.

    I.E. Who gave the right to the IWF to act as (self appointed?? who appoints them) judge and jury on any web site they like. Effectivly threatem small ISPs with law suits (by implication if not directly) that could put them out of business.

    In answer to who can get rid of the government - we can, every time there is an election... admitedly the choice isn't up to much at the mo' though.

  • Comment number 25.

    @RenWilliams (#21)

    You do have a point there.

    The only problem then is that, with highly sensitive situations such as child pornography, there tends to be a big "If you're not with us, then you're against us" mentality. Anybody complaining at such measures gets labelled as being pro-CP. (or whatever they're trying to ban this week)
    I'm not pro CP/hate/racism/homophobia/etc... But I still feel uncomfortable about internet being censored. Once started, where does it stop?

    As a professional techie, I simply cannot (at all) agree with any measure that masquerades as a technical error message when it isn't a technical fault.
    Those errors exist to accurately diagnose a problem. Does this mean that next time they flag up (rightly or wrongly) a suspicious page, any of the staff members I support who try to access Wikipedia could result in me wasting time trying to troubleshoot a "fault" that isn't what it claims to be?

    This is why I (grudgingly) advocate a more open censorship.
    Things have to be honest and not mess with the underlying systems. Otherwise, like in this case, the issue blows up all out of scale. And ends up being for nothing, as the technical internet community can just route around anything it perceives as "damage". And the methods used this time around were certainly perceived as such.

  • Comment number 26.

    Just a note to clarify a couple of points. The IWF does not itself block or censor anything. It passes a list of sites where it believes illegal images are situated to the ISPs who are its members. It is they who then decide whether or not to block it. The trouble is, they seem to have in effect contracted out the decision-making process - as well as the alert mechanism - to the IWF.

    But it does seem clear that the Internet Watch Foundation failed to communicate properly with either Wikipedia - or the wider world - and needs to be more transparent.

    Still, the IWF does not have the power, as one poster suggested to send people to jail for looking at an image. That still involves the police and the courts.

  • Comment number 27.

    You may be interested in what Wikkipedia`s founder Jimmy Wales is saying now the smoke is clearing:
    `I would recommend to the [Wikipedia] community that we go back and take a hard look at whether we ought to be keeping this [image] based on our own principles, if it is in fact likely to be in violation of the law in the UK and (especially) US.
    As a community, we are already quite firm: we do not and will not accept images of child pornography. So then the question becomes: does this image fit the definition under (especially) US law, or the law of any particularly relevant countries (UK).
    That is a question of judgment, of fact, that I do not think has been looked at sufficiently. I am not an expert, but I can tell you that, as for me, I am not downloading or looking at the image at all, I don`t want it anywhere near my computer.`
    Follow link on this page:

    There`s some quite intense discussions going on in Wikipedia discussion boards.

  • Comment number 28.

    "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?"

    By admitting to its popularization of a widely unknown cover, the IWF has questionned its own approach, since there seems to be no way around the problem, that each time you block access to something you create awareness that there is something. After all you prove that it is at least you who is aware.
    I contest the assumption that blocking content dissolves a problem and I also think that blocking content does nothing to prevent whatever abuse we are dealing with, and - to be honest - abuse has not started with the invention of the internet. Alas, bodies like IWF will have to accept that their work, how laudable ever it may be, does not really prevent child abuse, because to prevent a problem you need not block some symptoms, but to address the causes. The causes of child abuse are not to be found on the cover of a record, but e.g. in families.

  • Comment number 29.

    @28 fully agree. This has an adverse effect. Something that is relatively unknown suddenly becomes known, because of the IWF's actions. I also agree with NewCatweazle that more effort should be given to the root causes of child abuse and not to some symptoms.

    Also, as some have already pointed out, there is no technical solution to the problem. Proxies and routers can be altered, images and any other content can be copied infinitely, and the web is almost completely archived on, so previous versions of pages can be accessed in the future.

    I also think that IWF's work may be laudable but it will never be very effective. There are many more ways than the web to distribute illegal content, including abusive and indecent images of children. Most distribution will not happen through public websites. In my opinion, the IWF only exists to keep everyone, i.e. government and the Internet trade, happy.

    And last but not least, Jimmy Wales made a small fortune with his own website that had images images of naked women and links to far more sexy websites, before he went to set up Wikipedia. He himself does not like the reference pornography, he prefers the term 'glamour photography'. And Wikipedia also censors, not always without controversy.

  • Comment number 30.

    `The question is whether a secretive and unaccountable body should be able to declare something to be `child pornography` etc #23

    The IWFs press office seems to work hard to get the IWF attention, its annual reports and accounts are available on its website and the IWF is quite well known (if you`ve paid attention), so I wouldn`t call it `secretive`. e.g.
    I think the fact that many people have just woken up to the fact it exists, after 12 years of work, demonstrates that it it hasn`t been too wrong footed, until now. The IWF normally judges well over 10,000 images/web pages every year. That volume explains why ISPs and the police `contract out`. #26
    (Unless you look for that kind of material you probably would`t notice; and by no means is every 404 page not found message due to a ban, all kinds of genuine errors can happen.)

    `Be able to declare something `child pornography`.` #23
    The image in question would probably be classed as `indecent` as the law stands.
    The IWF works with (and receives training from) the police who base their judgements on:
    a) Current UK law
    b) As modified by judgements made by the courts.
    Its decisions can be challenged via the courts. If you disagree with the Sexual Offences Act 2003 Definitive Guidelines then the way to change them is to challenge them in the courts (juries have been known to be quite independent minded) or lobby MPs for a change in the law.
    The IWF works by looking at websites/pages reported to it by the public, and that includes the Wikipedia Scorpions page. This was first reported by a member of the public.
    Its decisions are taken on the same basis the police would make if taking a case to court.

    I hope how the Wikipedia page was handled will be a learning experience for the IWF. One industry commentator has put it down to `using Web 1.0 methods against a Web 2.0 site`.
    Web 1.0 methods work pretty against sites set up exclusively to distribute child pornography.
    I don`t think the IWF either wanted or anticipated that adding one Wikipedia page to the blocklist would also result in all the UK Wikipedia editors being locked out. (A result of how Wikipedia detects and blocks the IP address of those on its own editorial blacklist [irony] .)
    There are some good points being make here today (eg # 19,# 25) I hope those responsible for the IWF look in and take note. (Or Rory could forward them?)

    Perhaps the IWF needs to convene an advisory pannel of IT professional and commentators to look at the best ways of dealing with complaints against mainstream sites. Including negotiation, cease and desist notices etc.

    Ultimately, as long as Child Protection laws stand as they are and public concern over Internet child pornography and the abuse and exploitation of children continues the Internet industry (e.g. the ISPs that founded the IWF and those that contribute to its funding: Google, AOL and Microsoft amongst others) will continue to respond to that.
    If the IWF was to disappear today, a replacement body would soon appear, either another `voluntary regulatory body` set up by the ISPs and Web companies, or as a police unit, a subset of the home office or a charity. And it would work in a similar way to the current IWF, working with the same partners.
    The IWF currently operates as a charity. There may be a case that the IWFs Chief Executive should become accountable to an elected body such as Parliament or a Police Authority, but that also leads to the danger that they`d be a political appointee.

    If you have alternative proposals for for accountability then make them known.

  • Comment number 31.

    Wait a minute.

    Is the term "ISP" being used to identify those companies that give users the internet connection, or those companies that provide domain hosting services, or just server space?

    If all an ISP provides is the connection, they have no responsibility for the content their pipe connects you to. That's down to the people who host the content. If you don't think it's appropriate, ask them to take it down. If you don't know how to do that, and assuming your ISP still allows you to connect to an uncensored internet, there are a great many resources online that will tell you how to find out who owns which website and which company hosts the domain.

    If we extend the analogy of "the information superhighway" it would mean allowing the people who sold you your car to determine which towns or cities you could drive it to, and which bits of the countryside you could look at as you travelled.

  • Comment number 32.

    What I would like to know, is what exactly did the IWF suggest should be blocked?

    Did they just suggest URL of the image, or did they ask for the whole page containing the image.

    If it was the latter, then this censorship, pure and simple, and is a step too far in a so called free society.

    If it was the former, why did so many ISPs get it wrong?

  • Comment number 33.


    I agree using technical faults to trying to disguise the fact that something is being censored is wrong.

    The amusing thing is that I dont think the MediaWiki software itself will throw a 404 Not Found, certainly on the type of URL that was banned. Even urls to non existing articles will return a 200 OK saying the page doesn't exist. So possible to detect the censorship on wikipedia, atleast.

    The IWF only exists, as its seemingly managed to convince politicians it can do the impossible. Fairly certain most politicians are not well educated in how the internet works. So how exactly the IWF suggest they can censor the internet doesn't get the scrutiny it deserves.

  • Comment number 34.

    You say this was the most controversial decision in the IWF's history, but we don't know that. We don't know what other pages it has blacklisted, because it doesn't tell us. Possibly thousands of them are as legitimate and as legal as the Wikipedia page - tasteless but not criminal. How would we ever find out?

    As you say, the IWF is an undemocratic and unaccountable institution, and since almost all ISPs belong to it and because it works closely with the government and police, it is the UK's de facto state internet censor, almost a sort of quango (even though technically a "charity").

    Under the IWF appeals process, the only appeals are to the IWF itself, unlike the BBFC (say) whose decisions can be appealed to separate, independent bodies - the Video Appeals Committee (in the case of video) or local authorities (in the case of cinema). The IWF's processes are an absolute disgrace to a democratic or open society.

    It is no exaggeration to say that the IWF's recent actions have damaged the UK's reputation.

    You omit to mention that the BBC is a member of the IWF, and presumably pays public money in membership fees to the IWF. The IWF also receives money from Google, Yahoo, ISPs, the EU and others. Concerned citizens should consider writing to the BBC, Google, their ISPs, and their MEPs to protest against their funding of such an illegitimate, unaccountable censor.

  • Comment number 35.

    @30 - SheffTim
    "I hope how the Wikipedia page was handled will be a learning experience for the IWF. One industry commentator has put it down to `using Web 1.0 methods against a Web 2.0 site`.
    Web 1.0 methods work pretty against sites set up exclusively to distribute child pornography."

    But they don't; there were various ways to get around the block, including google's own cache, the waybackmachine, and various other archives of web 1.0 sites. And every time the IWF goes to each suspect / reported site, they themselves are likely to have created a few more cached instances of the site in question.

    And there lies the technical problem; as long as a quick google search continues to bring up the site regardless, their censorship methods are basically broken. They don't actually take down sites; they just block them, and they can't even do that properly.

    Besides which, as another poster pointed out, in order for even these methods to work, they basically need to be done in secret. Now everyone knows about them, and how to get around them. This reduces their effectiveness considerably.

    Meanwhile, the IWF (secret)blacklist still exists. How long before this gets lost somewhere? In many ways we're lucky this ISN'T an "accountable" government department, or it would've been lost on a USB pen drive ages ago, uploaded onto the internet at large for all to see (BNP register anyone?), put on the front pages of every newspaper as the latest information blunder (gaining far more public attention than this), and each site on the blacklist visited by countless people that wouldn't have known about them otherwise.
    Anyone can see that a blacklist like this shouldn't be allowed, it'll be much too dangerous when it (inevitably) falls into the wrong hands.

  • Comment number 36.

    Thank you for the full analysis here which makes it clear that this is a deliberate "political" backing-down which actually makes the waters more murky, not less.
    There is, of course, nothing in the legislation to which the IWF appeals which permits an image to be "OK" because of how old or widespread it is.

    re. "Is there any need to block access to child abuse images online?"
    Yes, actual child abuse images... but the IWF's own reporting mechanism doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between "child abuse" and "indecent images of children" (by whatever viewer's definition and in whatever context they're operating).

    On the plus side, at least there's a /little/ bit more sanity operating in this case compared with the Australian Simpsons "child abuse" by proxy (cartoon) case, even if the IWF has clearly compromised their own "principles" in the process by "backing down" in the way they did.

  • Comment number 37.

    To be honest, if you viewed the image itself and immediately thought "CHILD PORNOGRAPHY!", then I'd say there's something wrong with you, rather than the image...

  • Comment number 38.

    Here we go again. Rory, come on... You should know better by now.

    The simple fact is, if anyone wants to access the sick content on the internet, they will. There is nothing that the IWF are going to be able to do about it. They can work on shutting down UK based servers, but thats it. What the IWF can do is stop people accidentally happening on it using filtering, which amazingly I've never had happen to me in the 13 years I've been accessing the internet.

    Just to clarify Rory's comments.

    "The IWF does not itself block or censor anything. It passes a list of sites where it believes illegal images are situated to the ISPs who are its members."

    It has a list of blocked sites, that the ISPs automatically pick up. They then automatically action the block based on this. The decision is made by the IWF to block an image, so the ISPs, faced with a potential of overwhelming content, use this automated method because they believe the IWF to be a responsible organisation. Apparently they aren't, and have caused massive damage to the UK's reputation around the world. This is a communications failure of massive proportions, from the IWF and the ISPs and members of the IWF.

  • Comment number 39.

    "Just a note to clarify a couple of points. The IWF does not itself block or censor anything. It passes a list of sites where it believes illegal images are situated to the ISPs who are its members. It is they who then decide whether or not to block it. The trouble is, they seem to have in effect contracted out the decision-making process - as well as the alert mechanism - to the IWF."

    Yes Rory, they were ordered to do that, by Vernon Coaker, minister of this government. As I've already reminded you, yet you seem to have forgotten. Why have you not mentioned government's role in this? You continue to suggest that the ISPs have independently decided to accept IWF's judgements - this is not true. COuld you please stop doing that?

    "But it does seem clear that the Internet Watch Foundation failed to communicate properly with either Wikipedia - or the wider world - and needs to be more transparent."

    We can agree on that

    "Still, the IWF does not have the power, as one poster suggested to send people to jail for looking at an image. That still involves the police and the courts."

    Who largely take the IWF's word regarding what is and isn't child porn - the police certainly do. Working side by side they (CEOP and IWF) reach judgements on what is illegal and pass that on. No, you don't go to jail based solely on IWF assesments, you may however get to court purely on that.

    And to the other suckers here who think this is some voluntary scheme entirely independent of government, just google it - Vernon Coaker, cleanfeed, ISP, iwf - dont' take my word for it. Go to the source.

    WAKE UP!

  • Comment number 40.


    "If you have alternative proposals for for accountability then make them known."

    I have done, but will be doing so again in the new year at CommentisFree.

    The "secrecy" I refer to is in the process that URLs and IPs are deemed illegal, the criteria used, and the final list - none of this is available for scrutiny. My main beef however is that the IWF has no accountability - no law backs this, no parliamentry debate approved it, the existence of this network of censorship was even denied. If a list of IPs is to be passed to ISPs for blocking, by the IWF or Home Office or anyone else, that list needs to be scrutinised - and not just by political and industry insiders.

    Oh, and no way would a court find that image indecent - Sally Mann, Nan Goldin - go look it up. Wouldn't happen. Put that on a gallery wall - or in HMV, as we have seen - and no prosecutions would follow. Simple nudity should not be termed indecent, ever.

  • Comment number 41.

    `The test, when considering an image like this one, should never have been is it arousing?, but simply Does it show someone being abused?`. #1 `Simple nudity should not be termed indecent, ever.` #40.
    Opinions, but not what UK law says; nor I think what the public wants, when it applies to children.

    Under current UK law to distinguish between child pornographic content, authorities rank material on a sliding scale of severity from one to five.
    Level 1. Images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity. (See also below)
    Level 2. Sexual activity between children or solo masturbation by a child.
    Level 3. Non-penetrative sexual activity between adults and children.
    Level 4. Penetrative sexual activity between children and adults.
    Level 5. Sadism or bestiality.
    The CrimeLine Wiki has a page on what is currently considered `indecent` and illegal by the courts and how this has been arrived at.
    The Crown Prosecution Service site has more detailed guidance as to how images should be considered.

    The courts (and juries) have contributed to how what constitutes an indecent image is defined. There have been several such cases. In Crown vs. O`Carroll [2003] O`Caroll`s collection of photos were of non posed nude children and his conviction for importing indecent photographs was upheld. Accordingly non posed photographs of nude children can also be cause for an prosecution.

    To broaden this discussion as to why UK law takes such a narrow view of what constitutes `indecent` when it comes to images of children on websites.
    Lets imagine that a court (or Parliament) says its OK to publish images of nude children on the Web and sites carrying 1,000s of such images spring up, catering for the sexual fantasies and compulsions of paedophiles by showing thousands of images of nude young children.
    Would you be happy about that?
    And there are criminal gangs that try and produce such websites in order to make money; they also feature much worse imagery. Don`t be naïve. e.g.

    Would you be happy if such websites operating from Russia, China, Africa were forcing young children to pose against their will?

    Would you be happy if paedophiles were posting images of their own nude young children for other paedophiles to admire?

    That`s one argument why a court could well find that album cover image indecent, it may open the floodgates. Does the image constitute erotic posing? A jury could decide it does, that album image was originally produced to shock. But un posed images can also be found to be indecent too.
    Wikipedia is based in the USA and covered by US law, but if prosecuted it could mount a defence around the age of the image; i.e. pre Internet, pre widespread concern re. child abuse; that Wikipedia only displayed one image, not a collection. That it is just one of many sites hosting that image etc.

    I agree that there are occasionally grey areas and the law does take into account some extenuating circumstances. Intent and context could also be considered, as in the Mann and Goldin cases. But those are not cases consequently mean that it is permissible for any and all images of child nudity to be allowed on the web, or in print. They are exceptions to a general rule, one that is aimed at protecting children.

    Someone mentioned the Simpsons cartoons case, which was possibly over zealous; but the laws covering cartoons and pseudo photographs are there because computer graphics can be almost photo realistic and the standard of manga and anime etc is so high; the underlying principle behind those laws is sound.

    By all means campaign to change the law if you want the web (or print) to be uncensored; I doubt you`ll have much success convincing the public on this.

  • Comment number 42.


    Explain to me how and why an unaccountable charity of ordinary anonymous individuals can view and no doubt collect child pornography with apparent immunity.

  • Comment number 43.

    #42. If you are claiming that individual members of the IWF `collect child pornography with apparent immunity` for personal use then you need to supply some evidence and take the matter to the police [or newspapers].

    There are UK laws relating to child protection and inappropriate images of children (see #41) and strong public concern over child protection issues, so it is clear these laws have to be upheld.
    As with the fight against crime generally it has to be attempted, even if it is not 100% effective. To be blunt someone has to do it, however distasteful it may be.
    If you think the IWFs role is better undertaken by another body (e.g. Police Paedophile Unit) then you need to make a case for that.
    In addition to what I put in post #30 about accountability; if you wish Parliament to appoint appoint an ombudsman to check that that laws are being adhered to and interpreted correctly and that procedures are rigorous, or you wish it to become part of Government so it is accountable to Parliament then, again, you need to make a case to MPs and the Internet bodies that founded the IWF.
    If you believe that the IWf needs better technical guidance from IT professionals and commentators then you need to make a case to its trustees, partners and funders for that.
    If you wish the IWF abolished then again you need to campaign for that; though I would imagine Parliament would simply allocate its role to another body, with the support of the Internet Industry.

    As has been pointed out above e.g. #35, by releasing the blacklist this could allow paedophiles to try and find ways of circumventing the block; a move that would be self defeating and a stronger argument for not releasing it than for doing so. For sites that object to being blocked there is an appeals procedure or they could take the matter in front of a jury.
    Unsurprisingly, up until the Wikipedia case no site had appealed. I imagine most sites carrying indecent images of children try and move location and cover their trail.

    I feel under no compulsion to respond to every comment with shefftim in it. If you wish to respond to a comment then best to use its comment number e.g. #41 or use a quote if responding to a specific point.
    I understand most blogs get many more readers than those that post comments.

  • Comment number 44.

    Re SheffTim
    "Someone mentioned the Simpsons cartoons case, which was possibly over zealous; but the laws covering cartoons and pseudo photographs are there because computer graphics can be almost photo realistic and the standard of manga and anime etc is so high; the underlying principle behind those laws is sound."
    What?! Seriously?! LOL!

    So let me get this straight; cartoon characters are now REAL, and not imaginary?
    Reminds me of a certain southpark episode... which is probably also illegal under these rules, come to think of it!

  • Comment number 45.

    #43. I don't think the law makes a distinction on the context of viewing illegal material. IWF have to view illegal material to apply their judgement. And considering they are not officers of the law, I don't see why or how they get special priviledges.

    I pointed out the reason for not releasing the backlist in #21.

    The IWF is ineffectual, its ban list is tiny its insignificant, they claim its between 800 and 1200 at any one time.
    Coupled with the fact they don't inform web hosts that their site has been blacklisted by a ISPs in the UK.
    In my mind has more to do there not being an appeal before now, than the IWF being precise in their blacklisting.

  • Comment number 46.

    #45 `Think the problem lies that they cannot censor the internet in a honest manner. Once a censored url is known it is trivial to retrieve it via essentially another proxy.`

    I think you`ve validated my argument for not releasing the IWF blacklist. (See #43)

    The guy in the Simpsons cartoon case (#41 vs #44) [down in Oz] also had real child porn on his PC.
    Given the quality of graphics in computer games etc and CGI in films (that are filtering down to the home market) I maintain the underlying principles behind those laws is sound. Is photo realistic CGI child porn for sexual gratification OK and `harmless`?

    To quote something I wrote in a comment a few days ago, in the blog when the Wikipedia outcome was uncertain.

    ` Not least because that such material on the web can involve children being coerced or have non-consensual acts performed against them in order to produce such material.
    That also breaks societal norms as to what are agreed to be the differences between being a child and adult; that sex between adult and child (or sexual attraction by an adult towards children) can never be condoned or considered `normal` behaviour, and that incest is a taboo that should not be broken.
    This is at heart about protecting children from adults that seek out such material and have sexual fantasies about young children.`

    Anyone disagree with that? Make a case.

  • Comment number 47.

    #46. Yes but I take the opposing view, if they cannot do it honestly, they shouldn't be doing it.

    I don't believe the internet creates paedophiles, they've existed long before the internet was conceived, same as the material. They seek out such material because they are paedophiles.

    And as I've said previously that I also doubt the material as to register on the legal scale for a paedophiles enjoyment.

    We didn't and haven't resorted to opening postal mail, and checking for such imagery, and if discovered even something that "potentially" illegal, just burn it. The fact that someone was inspecting mail would create a huge uproar.

  • Comment number 48.


    So you're basically saying that there can be valid reasons for a non-technical fault to show up like a technical error? And that it's ever OK to lie about why something is not working? All in the name of "protection"?

  • Comment number 49.

    Re: Rory's clarification at #26

    The IWF maintains a list of blacklisted content, which organisations can request to use. The Home Office may 'insist' that ISP's use it but, as yet they have no statutory power to instruct them to do so. In fact, ISP's generally sign up to do this as a matter of course, particularly those who are affiliated to the ISPA (the ISP' Association).

    IWF don't really have any powers of their own but are effectively just a reporting mechanism for organisations like SOCA and previously the National Hi Tech Crime Unit) and CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) and other agencies. Report submitted to IWF are funnelled through to the appropriate places.

    I remember when the IWF was set up, back in 1997 with, it must be said, a much wider remit than it has now. Self-regulation was preferred to the possibility of that imposed from outside the industry. This was a point I raised at a roadshow thew IWF held in Newcastle in 2007 to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Theoretically this wider role still exists but they now, in practice, concentrate on the child protection angle almost exclusively. When I asked about their position on items such as the depiction of borderline consensual activities such as sado-masochism (at the time the government had just made announcements over policy on 'extreme pornography') there was some fudging over whether this would indeed be a matter for them
    at all and some shrugging of shoulders.

    The situation is now very muddy. Although the government has talked about expanding hi-tech crime fighting provision, the current financial situation may militate against it. In addition, the are serious concerns in the industry about the ability of regional forces and SOCA itself to cope with circumstance even as they are now.

    All the Wikipedia incident has done is throw the rather tangled mess of the current set-up in sharp relief. Which is a shame because there are some skilled and sincere people within IWF. This has done them no favours.

  • Comment number 50.

    Hmmm. A lot of heat and light on this one, plus a lot of people arguing from positions of ignorance.

    I'll admit to not knowing a lot about the IWF or the regulatory framework in which it functions, other than it being an industry inititiative in self-regulation in an attempt top avoid government enforced regulation.

    Perhaps that makes it ideal material for a proper in-depth report as why it was set up, how it works, who controls it, and what if any legal framework it works within?

  • Comment number 51.

    #49 I get the impression that the IWF would much prefer it if the extreme pornography remit wasn`t dumped on them, but went to the police, or someone (anyone) else instead. Some of their responses to the consultation process have been, how shall I put it, less than enthusiastic. I think your right about financial concerns, its very unlikely that any additional work would get adeqeute funding. I also suspect the Govt could end up with egg on their face over this, especially if juries refuse to convict a `consenting adults` defense; I suspect a lot of agencies realise that and want to keep it at arms length. But this really should be a separate thread.

    #48. Can genuine errors just happen? Yes. (Our server at work shut us out for an hour last week, for no apparent reason. Yeah, Microsoft works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.)
    On the Internet as well? Yes. There are times my ISP can`t connect me to MSN, Yahoo or here; individual sites get their own problems and links to locations change or move, pages are taken down by sites themselves and other issues arise too. Its not all big brother`s fault.
    Custom error messages tend to be created by sites to be returned by their server when a URL directs traffic to their site, but can`t locate the individual page. (See above)

    With the IWF list my guess is that ISPs simply get the URLs and type then into a database that connects to their routers. If the router gets traffic to/from a URL on the database it just shuts off transmission, causing your browser to generate a default error message. Some ISP techie would have to say if a custom error message could be generated.
    If so that makes me think there could be a competition for the funniest `You`ve been blocked` page.

    As its Friday afternoon here`s a page of funny custom 404 messages. Click on the thumbnail it takes you to the actual page.

    My thanks to everyone here for such a reasoned discussion on a number of `difficult` subjects.

  • Comment number 52.

    If the IWF backed down, and reversed their decision...

    - why was the block re-instated on Friday afternoon (12 December)??

    - why is no-one talking about it??

    Does this mean that we should be prepared for web-filtering to take place, unannounced??

  • Comment number 53.

    #52 Just tried. Page still available.

    #48 See what I mean?

  • Comment number 54.


    It's not about whether I can view 'that page' (personally, I wouldn't even dignify it with a response, or page view - whatever the rights and wrongs, it's still in bad taste).

    What I do find, is that my IP-address is being altered, because, you guessed it, traffic via BT broadband to Wikipedia is passing through a filter, as it was last week. This means that I cannot edit and contribute to pages anonymously, as the filtered (false) IP-address has been barred, due to persistent vandalism from some of the 4 million plus other users.

    This type of intervention could actually be illegal (interfering with, or intercepting signals over BT's network).

  • Comment number 55.

    You probably already have done so but contact your ISP and the IWF

    I`ve not seen a similar complaint from anyone else on the web recently re. BT/Wikipedia; you can`t be the only editor using BT so the cause may originate at the Wikipedia end.


  • Comment number 56.

    I think there is a good case for ISPs blocking illegal images. Apart from anything else viewing an illegal image, even accidentially ould leave a copy cached on your PC somewhere, leaving you liable to prosecution.

    My concern is that at the moment it seems that a self appointed organisation is deciding to block images that it decides MAY be illegal. That suggests that in some cases they may also not be, in which case this filtering is preventing us viewing images that we are legally entitled to view, in many cases without it even being readily apparent that these images are being blocked.

    Now the fault may be with the how the ISPs impose the filtering, rather than the list itself, but as an absolute mimimum any time a web access is blocked the user should be informed of the block, the reason why it blocked, and what steps to take to appeal to have the block removed if it is not justified.

    I pay my ISP to provide me a service so I expect it to work fo rme, not for the government or some self appointed organisation. By preventing illegal images makinhg their way onto my hard drive they may actually be doing me a favour, but onlyt if the images really are illegal.

    I am not aware of the details of the law on child pornography but to me at least the Virgin Killer image did not seem to deserve to be illegal. The child was not being harmed in any way so there is no protection of children issue and it did not appear to be pornographic in any way. There is no denying that it is in bad taste. but bad taste and illegal are two very different things.

  • Comment number 57.

    #56 `I am not aware of the details of the law on child pornography`

    See post #41. Photos of nude children are considered `indecent` under UK law.

    It may be worth following the comments down from the top, there's been quite a comprehensive debate about all this. Particularly from #17 onwards.

  • Comment number 58.

    Photos of nude children are considered `indecent` under UK law.

    Not necessarily:

  • Comment number 59.

    But they can be, the courts have made it clear that both posed and non posed images of nude children can be classed as indecent.
    In #41 I mentioned grey areas which the Mann and Goldin cases fall into; intent and context can be taken into account. A court (or CPS) would make the final decision.
    From the article you link to. `In the case of photographs of children it's important to look at the circumstances surrounding the images, says Mr Cooper. 'For instance: how old is the child? Have the photos been taken in vulnerable circumstances, in other words was there an element of exploitation involved? Sometimes it's relevant whether there is a whole series of photographs of children.`

    Other factors also come into play, any element of exploitation or commercial gain, the number of such images? Images shown or distributed to a child? If a person is responsible for the original production of the images, particularly if the child or children involved were members of the offender’s own family, or were drawn from particularly vulnerable groups, or offender has abused a position of trust. If the collection of images organised on a computer in a way that indicates a more or less sophisticated approach to trading or a higher level of personal interest and so on.

    To put it another way, if found with a similar image(s) to that of the Scorpions cover on your PC, or of posting it (or them) on a website, you may have difficulty justifying it in court.


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