IWF reforms could pave way for UK net censorship

Who is watching the watchers?

The costs of doing business

Even some large ISPs that are clearly in the consumer broadband business aren't sure how much it costs, although BT is reported to have spent £1m on developing and deploying Cleanfeed, which at the time required original research. AOL, for example, which is a member of the IWF and whose policy analyst, Camille de Stempel, serves on the IWF board, says it can't separate content blocking from its general array of user controls.

"It's just one of the costs of doing business," says spokesman Jonathan Lambert.

For other ISPs the cost of content blocking is unpredictable; it depends on many variables including how their networks were designed, how complex they are, whether they implemented proxy caching in that days when that was fashionable to conserve bandwidth, and, less importantly, how big they are. For our hypothetical provider, the cost of the IWF subscription is minor compared to the cost of installing and configuring hardware, which could be enough to drive it out of business.

Cleanfeed is also not the universal solution it sounds like, even though most DSL suppliers "resell BT". The further an ISP is from simple rebranding, the harder it is for it to use Cleanfeed – unless it reengineers its entire product.

But in any case, Cleanfeed is not a panacea; Richard Clayton, a researcher at Cambridge University's computer laboratory, noted in a recent paper (PDF) that Cleanfeed's two-part design, intended to make the service cost-efficient and accurate, avoiding overblocking, can be hacked to turn it into an oracle that compiles a list of the blocked sites. Clayton says, like other security systems, there is no such thing as a "fit-and-forget" content blocking system: it must be constantly updated to ward off attacks.

Robbins calls Clayton's research an "academic paper", and says it would take a lot of work to keep the detected list up-to-date. He notes, however, that the IWF's actual purpose is to protect consumers from accidentally committing the crime of looking at child abuse images. "We're not there to stop determined paedophiles, because they're always going to find a way around it."

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) intends to discuss Clayton's paper to consider the issues it raises.

The founding of the IWF was a response to government and law enforcement pressure and the threat of regulation. Despite general agreement that the organisation has been successful, and the fact it has been widely copied around the world because of that success, the threat is still there.

The Home Office says: "We have always been clear that if we cannot deliver universal blocking by working with ISPs we will look at other options." However, the spokesman adds: "We still have the view that legislation is unnecessary, and we don't think we would have achieved what we have with legislation."

Creeping missions

Keith Mitchell, technical director of the UK Internet Forum, was one of those involved in setting up the IWF, and he believes the persistent threat of legislation is unfair since the industry has "acted in good faith", and also that government pressure over time has changed the IWF's structure.

"I think it's been definitely subject to mission creep," he says. The IWF's structure has moved away from its industry roots since its founding during the last years of the Major government. "The Tory model was self-regulation; the Blair model is co-regulation." When Blair's government arrived, they ordered a review: "Then the balance tilted away from the industry and governance changed."

When IWF started, in contention were 133 Usenet newsgroups that the police wanted blocked. At that beginning, he says, "the principle was that newsgroups should not be blocked. That policy changed after the review." The IWF's list now includes 270 newsgroups, although its main activity concerns the web".

Robbins notes that the IWF does not attempt to deal with instant messaging or peer-to-peer networks. "We don't have a remit to deal with the private transfer of content from A to B. We are aware that people swap images in those areas, but it's a police matter. Notice and takedown, that's our role. You can't do that on P2P and IM."

He adds: "I'm against censorship. I don't see us as a censorship body. We deal with illegal content and get it taken down where we can."

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