Thursday, June 18, 2009

Digital Britain and the Internet Watch Foundation

The long awaited Digital Britain Report (pdf) has stirred up a great deal of comment - particularly in relation to filesharing - though little of it complimentary. (E.g. Andes Guadamuz | Chris Marsden | Lilian Edwards | The Register.)

But one aspect of the report which has received less attention (with the notable exception of the Register) is its discussion of the Internet Watch Foundation (pp. 202-203). This is relatively short so it's worth posting in full:
Criminal Material on the Internet

64. The Internet Watch Foundation, based in Cambridge and with just 15 employees, is tasked with minimising the availability of criminal content – specifically, child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK. It works with law enforcement agencies worldwide and operates a "notice and take down" procedure in relation to content on UK sites and a list of international child abuse sites that ISPs can block at the network level. The vast majority of UK networks use this list and discussions are under way to ensure that relevant consumer networks are comprehensively covered.

65. As a result of the partnership approach adopted by the IWF, less than 1% of child sexual abuse content, known to the IWF, has been hosted in the UK since 2003, down from 18% in 1997. The IWF’s work remains invaluable to every part of the value chain in the UK’s Internet industry. And, in a world of universal availability, increasing take-up and enhanced services on the network the work of the IWF will become more and more important.

66. IWF’s current income includes a contribution from the EU Safer Internet Action Plan with the bulk being derived from voluntary membership subscriptions. Its current income equates to some £1m per annum. This voluntary structure means that there is no certainty that the level of funding received now from the EU or from its membership will continue at this level in the future. In the current economic climate a voluntary funding base carries with it increased uncertainty over funding. Whereas having secure funding would allow the IWF to consider expanding its internal skill base, especially with regard to hiring additional technical expertise and raising greater awareness amongst Internet users about their role and remit. The IWF model of self-regulation is a success and is admired internationally, but if the regulation of criminal content is not adequately funded by industry, Government would need to consider statutory intervention. We therefore call on the IWF membership to propose a more secure funding model for the future.

67. The IWF has also been a model for international hotlines for reporting child abuse material, especially across the EU. Some operators already use its list of illegal sites internationally. Since most child abuse material originates outside the EU, there is a case for its operations to cover at least the whole of the EU. We will therefore explore with the IWF and the European Commission the scope for a pan-European model with commensurate funding.
What to make of this discussion? First, it's noticeably uncritical. For example, the claim that the "IWF model ... is a success and is admired internationally" simply ignores the criticisms that have been voiced of the IWF model by observers such as Lilian Edwards, Frank Fisher, Richard Clayton (pdf) and others.

In part, this flows from a second problem with the report - it doesn't differentiate between the role of the IWF in dealing with illegal material hosted in the UK (which is generally regarded as successful) with its role in providing a blacklist against which ISPs can/must filter (a much more controversial and ineffective endeavour). By conflating the two it attempts to use the success of the hosting remit to justify expansion of the very different filtering remit.

Third, the report - by referring to exploring "a pan-European model" - appears to be unaware of the fact that there are already proposals at an EU level for internet filtering. In fact, far from exporting the IWF model to Europe those proposals - by requiring the involvement of "judicial or police authorities" and "adequate safeguards ... to ensure that the blocking is limited to what is necessary, that users are informed of the reason for the blocking and that content providers are informed of the possibility of challenging it" - would if adopted require the IWF model to be entirely rebuilt.

Overall, therefore, the report's analysis of the IWF is quite flawed - undermining the recommendations it makes in respect of funding. It will be interesting to see how IWF members respond.

Incidentally, it's also been a busy week elsewhere in Europe in relation to internet filtering as proposed German legislation to require blocking of child pornography appears to be agreed between the main parties.

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