December 08, 2008 | Becky Hogge

IWF censors Wikipedia, chaos ensues

Update #2 (09/12/08): The IWF has just announced that they have removed the Wikipedia url from their blocklist. They say that "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."

You can read the full statement here.

Update: Channel 4 covered this story extensively, including comments from ORG that the incident has significantly raised public awareness of network-level censorship.

The collision of two online content regulation systems over the weekend has left internet users with unanswered questions about web censorship in the UK.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) confirmed yesterday that it had added a Wikipedia web page to its blacklist, having assessed the image according to specified guidelines, and considered it to be a potentially illegal, indecent image of a child. The image depicted cover artwork of a 1976 album by the German heavy-metal band Scorpions. The album was originally distributed in the UK with a different cover.

The announcement confirmed evidence gathered by concerned internet users throughout the day that links to the image were returning 404 error messages through a variety of major internet service providers. Matters were confounded as a side effect of the operation to block the image emerged, resulting in all UK users of ISPs who employ the IWF blacklist appearing to Wikipedia servers to come from only a handful of IP addresses. That meant users from the affected ISPs – a large majority of UK internet users – were blocked from editing Wikipedia anonymously or creating new editing accounts, since one user committing vandalism could not be distinguished from all the other people on the same ISP.

People from the UK who wanted to log in to Wikipedia are thus trapped between two mutually incompatible content regulation systems. Their traffic is re-routed through one of only a handful of servers in an attempt by their ISP to protect them from what the IWF believes is "bad content". Then they arrive at one of the most popular websites in the world only to be blocked from entering thanks to the methods employed there to protect users from what Wikipedia believes is "bad content".

For many, the episode will have brought into focus for the first time the IWF’s work identifying URLs that link to illegal images, as well as the fact that most consumer ISPs have now agreed to block content on the IWF list. And those who already knew about this system, but thought it would not affect them, will today be thinking again. The question is how far this episode challenges current UK practice around censoring content online.

Is this a technical problem? Should ISPs employing the IWF list attempt to preserve the originating address information of users whose traffic they are re-routing? This could help avoid future unplanned interaction with the filtering and blocking technologies employed by the websites those users visit.

Is this a problem of process? The issue appears to some extent to have arisen from a difference in judgement between the Wikipedia community and the IWF over the legality of the image. Wikipedia is an international community-maintained website, with a consensus-based approach to what content it displays on its pages. The IWF is a non-governmental organisation, which works to minimise the availability of child sex abuse content to internet users in the UK. How open should these processes be to ordinary internet users, and what recourse should they have to each of these organisations when things go wrong?

Is this a bigger problem? Should ISPs be censoring web content at all? Although many may agree that the type of content the IWF seek to identify is content that should not be circulated, the fact is that Government are talking ever more loosely about internet "filtering" in other contexts, for example to block unlawful distribution of copyrighted content. This episode has demonstrated the disruptive effect such practices can have even when applied to content of limited appeal. Is this a road we wish to travel down further? And if so, what does the final destination look like?

Comments (21)

  1. Anti-Piracy Measures Don’t Work, Report Shows | IDTorrent Blog:
    Jan 31, 2009 at 12:04 AM

    [...] the report is spot on. The Internet Watch Foundation in the UK showed that blocklists don’t work well when applied to known sites and content. On a sidenote, [...]

  2. Anti-Piracy Measures Don’t Work, Report Shows | CyberLaw Blog:
    Jan 31, 2009 at 07:07 PM

    [...] the report is spot on. The Internet Watch Foundation in the UK showed that blocklists don’t work well when applied to known sites and content. On a sidenote, [...]

  3. Internet roadblocks are just a speed bump in the conversation « TechWag:
    Feb 04, 2009 at 05:20 PM

    [...] there in the few ways that they can, the same holds true in China, the Middle East and even in England, no matter what hurdles are put up, there are ways around [...]

  4. Barcamp Transparency UK | Pete's Eats:
    May 30, 2009 at 04:00 PM

    [...] The IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) and self-regulation. How one self-regulated organization prevented the UK access to Wikipedia and got noticed for the first time. How many other sites have been blocked that you don’t [...]

  5. David Gerard:
    Dec 19, 2008 at 12:04 PM

    @Hubert - when an ISP puts all its customers through a great big proxy, as Virgin do (they transparent-proxy hundreds of thousands of customers through city-wide proxies), we typically go "huge ISP who are contactable? can we trust them to be merely stupid and not evil? let's trust their XFF headers."

    In the case of Virgin/NTL, Wikimedia worked hard with them a couple of years ago to get all their proxies' XFF headers in usable order (they weren't) just so we could see 100,000 people as 100,000 addresses rather than 1 address.

    Then Virgin switched off XFF headers when running stuff through the censoring proxy, and then Virgin tried blaming Wikimedia for them having done so ... more than a little rude of them.

  6. Internet Censorship « John Lilburne:
    Dec 09, 2008 at 02:50 AM

    [...] when you think things couldn’t possibly get any more stupid they damn well do. Posted by freebornjohn Filed in [...]

  7. Simon Gibbs:
    Dec 09, 2008 at 07:22 PM

    Hubert, I don't thing your points change anything.

    My understanding is that there is no human being between the IWF and the ISPs, so the IWF press the button and the ISPs computer does what its told. The ISP is culpable for the way it is done and for obfuscating their involvement, and also for failing to monitor the IWF, but the IWF were the proximate cause of the problems at Wikipedia.

    If you look at it from a wider perspective the IWF have issues with due process and accuracy and the ISPs with honesty, transparency, and for causing large scale technical issues. The ISPs have a larger number of topics to explain and correct, but the IWF has issues that go the the heart of democracy as they are compromising the Rule of Law and causing ISPs to assist in that erosion.

    Most ISPs do assign IPs dynamically and most broadband users keep the same IP for months at a time. So the system does work much of the time. Regardless, that is Wikipedia's business and they are aware of the inaccuracy in the system and have processes in place and are in full control of those procedures and can fix or change them if required. The problem was actually noticed when Wikipedias' processes were overloaded due to the large numbers of people sharing very few IPs. This last point is summarized (nearly to nothing) in the original post's 4th paragraph.

  8. Dominic Jackson:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 07:31 PM

    FWIW I e-mailed my ISP, Demon, to complain. They have replied that they can remove the blocking on a per-account basis but you need to schedule a telephone callback with customer services (presumably so they can confirm you take full responsibility for your actions if the block is removed).

  9. Paul A. Bristow:
    Dec 10, 2008 at 11:43 AM

    I (a user and contributer with a static IP address) was *blocked completely* from any of for 9 Dec 2008 (not just editing). My local ISP claimed it was not filtering.

    This was very inconvenient for my professional use.

    I find this all extremely alarming. Someone at IWF was not thinking (or caring?) of the implications of their actions (and I also worry about their judgement and excessive unregulated powers).

  10. Simon Gibbs:
    Dec 09, 2008 at 01:43 AM

    This is also an issue of double standards and transparency.

    My ISP told me, when they transmitted a 404 message to me from their servers that wikipedia did not have the file on this topic. That's what a 404 means, and it was a lie, plain and simple. At a minimum I would like to see ISPs committing to a transparent technical measure that states clearly in the 404 message what has happened and who is responsible. Let's leave the lying and obfuscation behind as a first step.

    The double standards aspect is also worrying. Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross went into a studio to record conversations about masturbating a 78 year old man after breaking into his house and it was printed by the Daily Mail. To my knowledge nobody anywhere was arrested - so was that content illegal? Its certainly a lot more gross and perverse than the image at the centre of this controversy which is alleged to be illegal and has been censored on that basis.

    I can understand that the bar should be lowered and more content censored when children are concerned as the issues are basically different, but something just seems to be out of whack here. Which image is actually more likely to cause moral corruption, the twisted Daily Mail article on Brand or the edgy but largely innocent Scorpions cover?

  11. Hubert:
    Dec 09, 2008 at 05:01 PM

    The wikipedia approach to "content security" is pretty laughable here too - given that most ISPs have dynamic IP assignment to broadband customers, the idea that wikipedia limit single users by restricting access from IP addresses is laughable. They'd have to block every customer from a given ISP anyway, in most cases - having their traffic routed via a proxy just makes it easier!

    Just to restate the blooming obvious, the IWF is not blocking anything, they merely assess the content and publish the list, which ISPs can then choose (though the govt may change this) to subscribe to and implement.

  12. There is no HTTP code for censorship |
    Dec 10, 2008 at 01:20 PM

    [...] reading (updated 10/12): The Open Rights Group has a good post summarising with some questions of their own and there’s a couple of good posts over at [...]

  13. Ian Betteridge:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 02:48 PM

    I think there's two problems here. First, there is the issue of IWF's processes, their lack of transparency, and the general feeling that decisions over what is and is not censored should not be left in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable body.
    Second, though, there is that notion of what is and is not "illegal" in this country to view. Clearly, if the image involved depicted sexual activity involving a child there would be much possibility of any grey area. It would be illegal to own, distribute, etc in the UK.

    But the problem is that the only opinion which counts for the IWF is that of themselves (unappointed, unelected, etc) and the police. This means that the police are acting as the judge of what is and is not illegal - and that's something which doesn't happen anywhere else in UK law.

    In fact, as far as I can see, even if an image were held to be legal to view in the UK after a trial, the IWF would be under no obligation to remove it from its blacklist: only the opinion of the police counts.

    That's why this case matters: a society based on the rule of law cannot leave the issue of whether something is illegal or not solely to the police where there is no formal recourse in law.

  14. rich:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 06:17 PM

    The technical challenges of 'invisible' internet monitoring and censorship are massive, probably to the point that it's not worth tackling - especially since they only blacklist things on port 80. There are so many workarounds for this that the system primarily serves to frustrate legitimate users/ISP's etc.

  15. Wikipedia censurata in UK - Faccio Cose Vedo Gente:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 04:30 PM

    [...] il post sul blog dell’Open Rights Group (una organizzazione britannica il cui scopo è preservare i [...]

  16. Michael:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 05:51 PM

    I think the view of most people (including me) is that they don't mind the censoring of dodgy images of children, but do mind that the technology they use interferes with other internet activities, like editing on Wikipedia.

    People here are too cynical, this hardly means we're heading for a totalitarian state.

  17. Harry Conway:
    Dec 09, 2008 at 02:58 PM

    This must have been a toe in the water ahead of the government discussion early next year on whether Britain needs its own great firewall.

    They were just judging reaction.

    How did this first get noticed? What are the chances some random person raised this?

  18. Owen Blacker:
    Dec 11, 2008 at 11:32 PM

    @qwghlm (pingback; #13): 403 Forbidden is prolly the most appropriate response, in lieu of some future censorship-aware HTTP protocol version.

    @Robert (#14): Yeah, the IWF's response was pretty risible. Effectively, it read "we still think it's illegal but, given it seems to be very controversial, we're not gonna block any copy of this image outside the UK." I'd be quite interested to see what happens if anyone in the UK has the cojones to pop it up here. It wouldn't surprise me if their ISP received a takedown note.

    And no, there's no way to see the list of blocked URLs — I think most people can understand that a body trying to prevent images of child abuse being available to UK Internet users probably shouldn't publish an index to the child porn they're blocking.

    We had quite a healthy and fruitful discussion on this topic at yesterday's Advisory Council meeting. One of the things we all agreed on, was that, if we must have censorship, it should be transparent to us. If we try to view a blocked URL, our ISP should tell us that's why it's been blocked.

  19. The Open Rights Group : Blog Archive » Lessons and questions for the IWF:
    Dec 15, 2008 at 03:28 PM

    [...] week’s outrage over the blocking of Wikipedia by the UK’s major ISPs after the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) added, and then removed, an image hosted by the online [...]

  20. Jamie Quinlan:
    Dec 08, 2008 at 02:19 PM

    I think, at the end of the road, we will end up in a toltalitarian state, where all content has be approved by a majority before it's allowed through. It's dangerous, and I really do hope that it doesn't happen.

  21. Grumpy Bob:
    Dec 11, 2008 at 07:34 AM

    Re #6, Dominic:
    Amusing then that the Wikipedia entry about the IWF says:
    "Demon Internet was a driving force behind the IWF's creation, and one of its employees, Clive Feather, became the IWF's first chairman."

    Re the IWF press release:
    The IWF's announcement that they were removing the page from the blacklist was pretty unapologetic, unrepentant and ungracious, I thought.

    Is there a way for the publis to see the list of blocked URLs?