they always think they know best

According to a government-commissioned report, the Rudd government’s plans to censor the internet will not work, will significantly slow speeds and will prevent access to legitimate sites. All-in-all, then, it’s quite a winner.

The report says the filters would slow the internet (as much as 87 per cent by some measures), be easily bypassed, and would not come close to capturing all of the nasty content available online. They would also struggle to distinguish between wanted and unwanted content, leading to legitimate sites being blocked. Entire user-generated content sites, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, could be censored over a single suspect posting.

It raises serious freedom-of-speech questions, such as who will be held accountable for blocked sites and whether the Government will be pressured to expand the blacklist to cover lawful content, including pornography, gambling sites and euthanasia material.

The business about banning access to Wikipedia is not hypothetical. This from the Guardian:

British internet providers have blocked access to parts of Wikipedia after accusations that the site was carrying “potentially illegal” images of child pornography.

Reports from users suggest that Virgin Media, O2’s Be internet service and others have blocked access to at least one Wikipedia article after it was placed on a blacklist by the Internet Watch Foundation, Britain’s de facto online watchdog.

The offending article, about German rock group The Scorpions’ 1976 album Virgin Killers, included an image of the record’s controversial cover – which featured a young naked girl with her genitals obscured by a crack in the camera lens.

The image caused controversy when the album was first released, and was eventually replaced in most countries – including the UK and United States – by a shot of the band. However, the original album cover is still on sale in the UK as part of a double album deluxe boxed set.

Instead of seeing the article itself, blocked users receive a fake message saying that the page could not be found.

In a statement, the IWF said that the organisation had received a report claiming the page was pornographic through its website, and that after a review the decision was made that the page was “potentially illegal”.

The example illustrates how the campaign against child pornography has degenerated into pure demonology. Does anyone seriously think that a thirty-year-old album cover posed a threat to anyone or that pedophiles were going to congregate around Wiki’s fan-built description of a German heavy metal band?

Most child abuse has nothing to do with the Internet. It takes place within conventional nuclear families, perpetrated by ordinary suburban people rather than cybernetic computer masterminds. The whole focus of this debate exemplifies a kind of magical thinking, in which the images themselves take on a talismanic power. You stumble onto the cover of Virgin Killers — and suddenly you transform into an evil predator.

Unfortunately, the real world remains stubbornly more complicated.

In the meantime, what were the consequences of the ban on the Scorpions?

The initial move last Friday by the IWF, which acts as a watchdog — and in effect censor — for internet content visible in the UK meant that some people could not see any pages on Wikipedia at all, while others were unable to edit pages on the user-generated encyclopedia.

The same article goes on to explain:

The IWF banned it after the web page location was sent to it last Thursday. But a protest from the Wikimedia organisation on Monday led the IWF into an unprecedented reconsideration of its earlier ban.

Normally the IWF bans about 10,000 web pages from around the world every year, adding them to a blacklist whose contents are kept secret — but implemented — by all the biggest internet service providers and mobile operators.

After more than a day of consideration, the IWF has issued a press release in which it says that it has lifted the ban, after considering the “context” of the image — something which it had previously said would not affect the legitimacy of an image.


That is a surprising move, because it opens up the possibility that any site which finds itself blocked could claim that its content is, contextually, artistic — and so get a ban reversed. It also throws into question the application by the IWF of its banning system, which is carried out by a four-strong team of analysts who work with the police’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) unit.

In other words, the system doesn’t provide some super technical fix to a complicated social issue. Rather, it necessarily involves the complicated discussions about art and sexuality and power that the Henson photos provoked. Yet it allows such questions to be resolved by an unelected and secretive body:

The IWF – a self-regulated body that effectively operates as Britain’s online watchdog – runs the blacklist, largely focusing on images of child abuse.

The censoring system which uses the blacklist, known as Cleanfeed, was first launched by BT in 2004, but is now used by most of Britain’s main internet providers.

However, the system has not been without its critics. In 2005 researchers at the University of Cambridge discovered that Cleanfeed could easily be reverse-engineered to reveal a full list of all the sites containing illegal content – turning it into what lead researcher Richard Clayton called “an oracle to efficiently locate illegal websites”.

The proposed implementation of a similar system in Australia, also called Cleanfeed, has caused consternation among civil rights campaigners. They are concerned that the scheme – which plans to blacklist any “inappropriate” content, not just images of child abuse, and will be enforced for all Australian internet users – represents a dangerous limitation on freedom of speech.

It might be useful, in this context, to link to Tanya Serisier and Mark Pendleton’s excellent Overland article on sexuality, censorship and the Left.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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