That image to the right, when uncensored, is the cover to German heavy metal band Scorpions’ 1976 album “Virgin Killer”. It was the centre of a storm yesterday after six British ISPs blocked their subscribers from accessing pages that featured it, including Wikipedia.
As well as the block of the offending page, another result was that Wikipedia editors and administrators in the UK became suddenly unable to edit pages when not logged in. This has prompted an uproar amongst users of the site – which relies on editing by volunteers for its content.
The image in question had already been approved by the community, surviving several deletion attempts by users, and being deemed as acceptable, primarily because of its artistic nature. It’s worth noting that the image is freely viewable on sites like Amazon.
O2/Be Unlimited, Virgin Media, Easynet, Plusnet, Demon, and Opal Telecommunications (TalkTalk) are believed to be the ISPs affected – they filter pages through a server which compares the page requested to a list of websites blocked by the Internet Watch Foundation due to concerns over child pornography, racist and criminally obscene material, and if a match is found, prevents the customer seeing the page.
The Internet Watch Foundation is a non-profit, but non-governmental organisation. It’s funded by voluntary contributions, which Wikipedia (for what that’s worth) claims come primarily from ISPs, presenting a possible conflict of interest.
There’s two things that bother me about this story most of all. The first is that, as a Wikipedia donor, editor, and frequent user, it’s an enormous problem if anonymous users can’t edit the site – the bulk of edits are done by people who just drop by and change a few sentences here and there, but don’t feel a pressing need to register.
The second, and far bigger, worry for me is that a non-elected group of people, funded by ISPs, are deciding what I can and can’t see on the internet. It’s UK-wide censorship of content. The IWF states that “we do not notify site owners that their websites are on our list”.
Ironically, much like Wikipedia, the IWF operates a ‘crowdsourcing’ method for its content filtering. Random members of the public can submit any page as ‘offending’ to the IWF, and it’ll be scanned by admins, then added to ‘the List’. The aforementioned six ISPs then block that page from access.
One last thought – this could make it very easy for people to get rid of content they don’t like on the internet. In recent years, the web has become a lot more interactive – many pages (forums, blogs, Wikipedia, etc) allow people to submit their own content. If that page has something you don’t like on it, it’s very easy to add some child porn to a page, submit it to the IWF, and then voila – it’s disappeared from the internet.
There are many many questions around this story, and I worry that by ignoring Wikipedia’s own content approval process and simply issuing a ban, a dangerous precedent is being set. Still, if nothing else, this incident shines a light on the censorship process, which is never a bad thing.
By Duncan Geere | December 8th, 2008