March 08, 2019 | Jim Killock

Informal Censorship: The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)

The following is an excerpt from the report UK Internet Regulation Part I: Internet Censorship in the UK Today.


Read the full report here.

The IWF, as a de facto Internet censor, has been popular with some people and organisations and controversial with others. The IWF deals with deeply disturbing material, which is relatively easily identified and usually uncontroversial to remove or block. This is relatively unique for content regulation.

Nevertheless, their partners’ systems for blocking have in the past created visible disruption to Internet users, including in 2008 to Wikipedia across the UK.[1] Companies employing IWF lists have often blocked material with no explanation or notice to people accessing a URL, causing additional problems.Some of its individual decisions have also been found wanting. Additional concerns have been created by apparent mission creep, as the IWF has sought or been asked to take on new duties. Its decisions are not subject to prior independent review, and it is unclear that ISP-imposed restrictions are compatible with EU law, in particular the EU Open Internet regulations, which indicate that a legal process should be in place to authorise any blocking.[2] Ideally, this would be resolved by the government providing a simple but independent authorisation process that the IWF could access.

The IWF has made some good and useful steps to resolve some of these issues.

It has chosen to keep its remit narrow and restricted to child abuse images published on websites. This allows it to reduce the risk that its approach creates over-reach. The IWF model is not appropriate where decisions are likely to be controversial.

It has an independent organisational external review, albeit this is not well-publicised, which could be a good avenue for people to give specific and confidential feedback.

The IWF has an appeals process, and an independent legal expert to review its decisions on appeal. The decisions it makes have the potential for widespread public effect on free expression, so could be subject to judicial review, which the IWF has recognised.

A significant disadvantage of the IWF process is that the external review applies legal principles, but is not itself a legal process, so does not help the law evolve. This weakness is found in other self-regulatory models.

There is also a lack of information about appeals, why decisions were made, and how many were made. There is incomplete information about how the process works.[3] Appeal findings are not made public.[4] Notifications are not always placed on content blocks by ISPs. This is currently voluntary.

Recommendations to IWF:

1. Adopt Freedom of Information principles for information requests
2. Ensure that the IWF’s external evaluation process is visible and accessible by third parties
3. Ensure that processes are clearly documented
4. Require notices to be placed at blocked URLs
5. Publish information about appeals, such as: the numbers made internally and externally each year; whether successful or not; and the reasoning in particular decisions

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Watch_Foundation_and_Wikipedia
[2] See reference 38 below
[3] http://web.archive.org/web/20180605155231/https://www.iwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/inline-files/Content%20assessment%20appeal%20flow%20chart%20process.pdf 

[4] The BBFC, for instance, operates a system of publishing the reasoning behind its content classification appeals.