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?