Wikipedia censorship a step too far

Today, many internet service providers in the UK have censored a page on Wikipedia due to an image used on the page. The image was blacklisted by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), an “independent, self-regulatory body” that aims “to minimise the availability of… child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK.” ISPs quite voluntarily use a list provided by the IWF to decide which pages to block. The IWF are free to decide that any page they choose is unsuitable, and to make it unavailable to internet users across the UK. On this occasion, they claim to have checked with the police, and been advised that the image in question is “potentially illegal”.

So what is the image in question? It’s actually the cover of an album, Virgin Killer, which was released by a German rock band called the Scorpions in 1976, which features a photograph of a naked girl. I’d never heard of the band or the album, and never seen the cover art in question, and neither would the majority of people have done. But now, thanks to the IWF’s intervention, everyone in the UK, and indeed around the world, will know of them, and many will no doubt have looked up the album cover to see what all the fuss is about.

There are many technical issues with the way the page has been blocked. My ISP, Be Unlimited, is one of those to have blocked the page. If I try to visit it, I see a message saying, “Not Found. The requested URL en.wikipedia.org was not found on this server.” The message is completely incorrect. In many less democratic countries that have wide-ranging censorship, attempting to view a blocked page displays a message to say that it’s blocked. If we must have pages censored, we should be told so, not have it disguised as a server error. Also, the way the block has been implemented means that all British users of Wikipedia are now channelled through a small number of proxy servers, sharing IP addresses. That means it is almost no longer possible to edit Wikipedia without an account (and impossible to create an account), and any anonymous users who do manage to vandalise Wikipedia can not be traced. I’m very concerned about the use of proxies, which can only have an impact on the performance of Wikipedia, which isn’t always the fastest site anyway. And as the IWF decides more and more sites have a single “potentially illegal” page, all those sites’ traffic will also go through the same proxies. The internet will get slower and slower, and the government will have all the traffic going through a central point where it can be monitored more easily for insertion into their big database.

The funny thing is, the content has been blocked in rather incompetent and ineffective way. They have blocked the page containing the image, not the image itself, so entering the URL of the image still allows it to be viewed, but at the same time, the entirely inoffensive text about the album is inaccessible. Then there is the fact that it’s possible to view the page using the HTTPS version of the English Wikipedia. Secure web pages are much harder to block or monitor. Yet even more ridiculous is that the same album cover is visible to all British internet users on the Georgian, Finnish and Ukranian language versions of Wikipedia. (Note that I haven’t linked the articles in question above, rather the main pages of the Wikis. It’s simple enough to use the search, but please check the laws in your country first.) Not to mention, the album is still on sale in the UK, and has been for more than 30 years, and is available from Amazon. As Wikipedia spokesman David Gerard says:

When we asked the Internet Watch Foundation why they blocked Wikipedia and not Amazon, apparently the decision was “pragmatic”, which we think means that Amazon had money and would sue them, whereas we’re an educational charity.

Something has to be done about the paranoia surrounding the issue of child abuse. Efforts should be directed towards catching the evil people who genuinely are responsible for abusing children or distributing masses of obscene material. Those people no doubt share knowledge to get around any obstacles that are in their way. They certainly aren’t going to be visiting Wikipedia to see the cover of a record from the 70s. I don’t believe blocking pages according to the IWF’s list serves any useful purpose. People who are determined to see illegal material will find ways of doing so. Anyone else is very unlikely to encounter such material unless they deliberately look for it. When a questionable image is hosted in a civilised, western country such as the US, surely the correct course of action should be to liaise with the authorities in that country to have the material taken down – if our laws prove to be tighter than the other country, we should be asking ourselves why.

Allowing an unaccountable organisation to add whatever pages they like to a blacklist is not a very happy position. Who knows what other criteria may be added in the future? Websites criticising the government maybe. Or perhaps they will block pages that explain how to circument digital rights management on Hollywood films. Internet censorship is a road we should not go down, and today’s development is already a step too far in that direction.

One response to “Wikipedia censorship a step too far”

  1. Roy Read

    First let me admit this I am basing this comment on hearsay (from national newspaper).

    Just as alarming is that it was just one, single, solitary complaint that sparked this censorship. What lies in store for the future when other individuals get on the band wagon?

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