Monday, December 22, 2008

Some thoughts on the IWF / Wikipedia debacle

One of the highest profile internet stories of December came when the Internet Watch Foundation placed a Wikipedia page on its black list of child pornography URLs, causing the page itself to be blocked by most UK ISPs and (more significantly) causing substantial collateral damage by preventing many UK users from being able to edit Wikipedia pages.

Now, after heavy criticism from internet users, the IWF has executed a hasty about turn, backing down after just five days. Though it still claims that the image in question is "potentially in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978", nevertheless it has stated that given the "contextual issues involved in this specific case" and "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".

While it's too soon to say what the long term implications of this might be, in the short term it has certainly damaged the reputation of the IWF, perhaps irreparably. As John Ozimek has pointed out, other actions of the IWF must now come into question:
So the scene was set for the IWF to take a fall. Gone is its record for 100 per cent undisputed blocking. Gone, too, is its reputation for being the undisputed good guy. Many people have looked at the image in question and have taken the view that it is not porn, or indecent, or abuse. Having made that judgement, they have started to ask questions about other imagery that the IWF has sought to block.

The absolute certainties that underpin a view that claims indecency is always porn is always abuse are shaken. Not least by reports that the child - now an adult - whose image lies at the heart of this controversy, is reported to have no regrets at all in respect of the photo.
It has also tarnished the IWF's legitimacy. In large part this rests on claims that it operates a formal mechanism for identifying material to be blocked, along with a (semi-) independent appeals procedure. But the ad hoc nature of the decision making in this case - where the IWF board ignored the results of its own appeals procedure - suggests that there are different rules in place for high profile sites with vocal supporters. Lilian Edwards puts the point well:
Non-accountable: the IWF`applied their own appeals procedure to the decision, after media pressure, and reversed it. Effectively they changed their mind. This is not how true courts and tribunals work, where an appeal must be heard by a seperate body with an account of what factors lead to a different legal decision. The IWF may have truely reconsidered their opinion as to the law (although their own press release rather speaks against this), but they may equally well have simply bent to public pressure, or practical enforcement problems. For those who truly want an objective system which responsibly cracks down on child porn, this is surely unacceptable. Justice is a system, not an arbitrary private discretion.
The incident has also compromised claims for the technical efficiency of UK internet filtering. While at least one UK ISP has resorted to a crude form of IP blocking, the two stage filtering process pioneered by BT (as its "Cleanfeed" system) has been sold on the basis that it can effectively block specific URLs without degrading network performance and with no collateral damage to legitimate content. That has been shown not to be the case. As Richard Clayton points out in a comprehensive post on the technical aspects of the system:
To sum up the key technical matters: the IWF chose to filter text pages on Wikipedia rather than just the images they were concerned about; the use of proxies by ISPs broke Wikipedia’s security model that prevents vandalism; the previous controversy about the Virgin Killers album cover meant that IWF’s URLs were quickly identified; however different capitalisations of URLs, the different blocking technologies, and the different implementation timescales led to considerable confusion as to who blocked what and when.

Some of these matters could be described as "human error" and might be done better in any re-run of these events with any of the other questionable images hosted on Wikipedia (and many other mainstream sites). However, most of the differences in the effectiveness of the attempted censorship stem directly from diverse blocking system designs — and we can expect to see them recur in future incidents. The bottom line is that these blocking systems are fragile, easy to evade (even unintentionally), and little more than a fig leaf to save the IWF’s blushes in being so ineffective at getting child abuse image websites removed in a timely manner.
The case has also thrown up issues of selective enforcement and parity of treatment between offline and online content. The IWF blacklisted this image only when hosted by Wikipeda - despite the fact that the same image was hosted by online retailers (and, indeed, has appeared on the cover of albums in your local record shop for the last thirty years). This disparity was bound to cause criticism, and the IWF's response - that it only acts on complaints received by it - has been felt by many to be inadequate.

Many users - when made aware of the blocking - also questioned the deceptive error messages used by most ISPs. Although some (notably Demon Internet) show pages indicating that content has been blocked, most ISPs appeared to be using fake 404 pages. It is far from clear why this is done, particularly when the practice in many jurisdictions using similar systems is to use block pages telling users why content has been blocked and what they can do if they feel that this is a mistake. (E.g. Sweden | Finland.)

The approach taken by the IWF to borderline images and fair procedures also comes into question. On their own admission they blocked the image on the basis that it was "potentially illegal" - and did so without notifying Wikipedia much less offering a right to be heard. One Wikipedia admin board sums up this point well:
The image is not certain to be illegal. In the IWFs own words the image was judged to be "potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK". The album has been for sale in many countries with this cover for over 30 years. No one has ever been prosecuted over the image as far as is known. The FBI investigated a report of this album cover in spring 2008 and decided to take no action. The Wikimedia Foundation has not been requested by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency to remove the image and has certainly not been charged over it. The ultimate arbiter of whether an image is illegal is a court of law, in particular a jury, and not a self-selecting group, however well-intentioned their motives.

The IWF blocked access to a page on one of the world's most-visited websites without informing its owners. We understand that their policy is not to contact any of the hosts they block, but commonsense should have told them that blocking such a website might have unforeseen consequences. In particular, they failed to understand that whereas a block of the article itself may well amount to restraint on the guaranteed freedom to receive and impart information, the image itself is uploaded from a different URL which could have been separately blocked by the ISPs with whom they are in partnership; in this way, they demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of how websites work, which is chilling in the extreme for a supposed Internet Watchdog.
Taking a longer term view, this incident means that any widening of the IWF's remit is now likely to be put on hold. There have been suggestions in the past that the blacklist should be extended to e.g. websites which "glorify terrorism", while the police and Ministry of Justice have already been advising individuals to refer alleged "extreme pornography" images to the IWF for assessment - however, in light of the considerable reputational damage caused by the Wikipedia ban the IWF is likely to be more cautious before it takes on any new roles.

Of course, it's not just in the UK that these debates are taking place - in the United States for example there are striking parallels about the way in which an private body (the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) has become an "unofficial internet regulator" carrying out internet censorship without any legislative basis, oversight or transparency. Chris Soghoian has an insightful editorial with more detail.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article that highlights the background and implication of the recent IWF decision.

    I think that one of the best things to come out of this incident is a much greater awareness by mainstream Internet users of the "covert" work of the IWF. I think that this awareness (and perhaps scrutiny) is a good thing.