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Monday, 8 December 2008

Privatised censorship and actually protecting children

NB: in about fifteen hours since this screenshot another 370,000 have viewed the page.

Today's furore over the Wikipedia block by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has already done its job: the IWF has rowed back and will (hopefully) face much scrutiny of its operation.

Mere moralistic calls when faced with the 'collateral damage' to Wikipedia (UK users blocked from editing it due to an inept process) and the availability of the image in numerous other places clearly haven't and won't work. In fact they've created 'the Streisand effect' yet again - thousands more viewing something 'they' don't want you to see.

No doubt someone will try this line but faced with a Wikipedia editor on Radio 4's Today this morning, the IWF spokesperson could only sound flustered and annoyed - and more than a little technically lost.

For me, this episode highlights the issue with privatising censorship which I've written about before (tagged posts). The IWF may be a charity but their decisions, like those of the companies which manufacture filtering software, take place away from any process which can be effectively challenged by you or I. They're unaccountable.

They have four staff 'trained by police' who have five URLs an hour (and probably hundreds more after this episode) to review. Much like YouTube etc. this will result in many 'false positives' and my second point about 'censorware' regimes such as this.

'Over-blocking' is what happens with software filters and it happens with badly thought through systems like IWF's. 'Over-blocking' causes collateral damage, often to those who won't know what's going on or have the resources to do something. The classic example is blocking of vital sex education information to teens and educational materials to teens and the rest of us. Art censorship is another by-product.

Two comments, one from The Register and another from the Wikipedia editors thread show how this happens:
I'm a member of the EFF, FSF, Liberty and Amnesty International, and a founding member of the Open Rights Group as well. (I mention this not by way of boasting, but to demonstrate that I'm not one of the knee-jerk, Daily Mail-reading, "hang teh peedos!!1" brigade; and incidentally that's also why I'm posting anon on this occasion.[1]) ... the reason for filtering images like this; the notion that (a) paedophiles will use them for sexual gratification, and that (b) men (or more likely adolescents) in the early stages of sexual development may get imprinted with a sexual response to the image, such that they become in effect paedophiliac themselves.


Hey guys. I work for a company in the UK which contracts to the police to forensically process computers in child protection cases ... I can tell you now that this image is *not* classified as CP (the IWF are mislead somewhere along the line). The image would be classed (on the UK Copine scale) as "Relevant" - which means alone would not allow for a conviction on CP charges but it indicative of intent. Viewing images like this in a non-sexual context (such as this article) or as *part of the arts* (music cover) is not classed as an offence.

Further more: the original image is NOT CP because it is covered by "for artistic purposes" (whereby the image makes a statement as part of a work of artistic merit) - it is extremely possible that the photograph of the cover is similarly classed. Plus I also believe there is a little used classification of "for informational merit" where the image can be justified as educational or informational (for example a text book on human development etc.).

Summary: this image is legally not a problem.

Pro-smoking early C20th poster

If you want to see truly 'problematic' images which most definitely are art and definitely meant to be 'problematic' check out Balthus (on Wikipedia). Collected by Picasso, Balthus had societal approval in spades but wouldn't pass an IWF harassed staffer:
Prime Ministers and rock stars alike attended the funeral of Balthus. Bono, lead-singer of U2, sang for the hundreds of mourners at the funeral, including the President of France, the Prince Sadruddhin Aga Khan, supermodel Elle McPherson, and Cartier-Bresson.
Or Nan Goldin's work, found legal after being seized from Baltic Modern Art gallery, Gateshead.

It is not good enough to have 'police trained' staff essentially randomly blocking images following the 'just-in-case' line of the the first commentator from The Register.

The IWF's original statement on the Wikipedia block makes crystal clear that they will over-block (my emphasis):
The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.
Another comment on The Register shows the pointlessness of their URL blocking staff and the actual need for real police, funded properly, to track down actual child abuse images and those who distribute them:
I have had dealings with the IWF before. A couple of years ago I came across a fellow trading child porno on a torrent site. I wrote to the IWF and the Met in London and included IP addresses and all info I could muster. RESULT: TOTAL DISINTEREST! The met wrote back saying inform the IWF and the IWF wrote back saying tell the police. I got the feeling that unless the target was easy nobody bothers.
IWF cannot pass on a URL in a torrent case to ISPs to add to their list (because there is no URL), therefore they are useless against actual child abuse. The police, apparently, cannot take action because they are underfunded/don't have the staff.

Blocking URLs as IWF seem to be spending at least four salaries on doing is mere sticking plaster and just not doing anything about actual child abuse. Hopefully this episode will see much closer societal examination of what they actually do.

Wikipedia don't come out of this well either.

They have discussed the image themselves before and it was interesting to note on their editor's thread one lonely editor trying to get internal work done on a policy about such images. He faced nothing but rants from libertarians and comparisons about hosting such images with those of Muhammed and adult 'erotic images'.

Postscript: in email discussion the following points have come up:

I wrote recently - and actually clumsily - about how Jacqui Smith's anti-prostitution drive would side-swipe gay men. Actually it will side-swipe fellow women (I'm drafting a follow up).

One of the things I pointed out was how they'd just defunded an anti-trafficking unit.

Another prostitution law is really about ideologically "removing the demand" (Smith's said as much) and as equally ineffective in stopping real trafficking as the IWF's actions are in stopping real child abuse. With the IWF, it's also about being seen to do something rather than actually doing it. Remember, this is an ISP-funded body set up to stop criticism and regulation.

In one fell swoop the major source for the world's spam (and a child porn host) was recently taken down. This is the sort of action which actually combats online child abuse - how well-funded is that work?

How is the IWF's true effectiveness being judged? How much has been wasted on IWF? This should be part of the accountability, which is clearly missing and no-one has the guts to ask.

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