IWF reforms could pave way for UK net censorship

Who is watching the watchers?

Are the experts in control?

Mitchell says over the IWF's 10 years the composition of the board has changed; its current make-up beyond the three industry representatives is almost entirely child protection experts, with the odd lawyer thrown in. There is no one now, as there has been in the past, whose primary interest is civil liberties or consumers. Although incitement to racial hatred is now listed in the remit, there is also no one who specialises in race relations.

However, the IWF is putting in the effort to make its policies and deliberations transparent: its policy documents are on its website, and it publishes the minutes of board meetings, including the list of who was present. Board members are recruited through press advertisements and personal recommendations.

Before 2000, the IWF was governed by two boards, one an industry board made up of IWF funders, and the other a policy board recruited by invitation and made up of representatives of relevant interest groups. Since 2000, the IWF's 70 members –  ISPs and others, plus ISPA and Linx, belong to a Funding Council, which sends three representatives to the board of 13 (including the chair). The other board members are independents.

Unwin's coming report recommends reviewing the role of the Funding Council and regular reviews of the Code of Practice, possibly incorporating an "independent element".

The Code of Practice is the set of notice and takedown rules to which members agree; there is no element of policy in it. She also suggests turning the Funding Council into more of an industry forum that passes recommendations to the board, seems to find it redundant that the views of both member companies and trade associations are represented, and thinks the right of veto over the board that is retained by the Funding Council could be damaging if subject to scrutiny or what she calls the "select committee test."

If Unwin's recommendations are adopted, the result could be greatly diminished industry control over the IWF.

Mitchell thinks ISPs would be justified in resisting this loss of control. "I think the ISPs are justified in wanting their safety zone of the veto until and unless the government is prepared to demonstrate more trust in the successful track record of industry self-regulation by lifting the constant spectre of legislation."

That spectre means, he thinks, that although the funding council could theoretically block the board's decisions by pulling the plug on funding (if the current formal right to veto were removed), it could not afford to do so.

"In practice this doomsday scenario has rather less weight as the immediate government response is likely to be statutory regulation," he says.

Unwin's recommendations are still being studied by the IWF and its members.

Robbins says, however, "Amanda Jordan [the IWF board chair] and Julia Unwin have made it very clear that the Code of Practice is where the industry has its major interest. They own that, and are the ones that would change that after various consultations. So in terms of the self-regulatory approach to the Code of Practice, that's more focused and strengthened."

Accountable to whom?

But, he goes on, policy areas such as charity law, financial risk, police liaison, and services such as supplying the database of child abuse websites to be blocked are not part of the Code of Practice.

"The board owns those, as opposed to the industry. They need to be developed in partnership with the industry," he says: "But actually the micromanagement of the IWF, like any other structure, should be through the board predominantly, who develop policy and then consult with those players they think are appropriate in the circumstances."

He also believes that if Unwin's recommendations were implemented, ISPA and Linx would wind up in a stronger position than now. Though, he adds: "They may disagree."

The big question is: if industry has less control over IWF, to whom would it be accountable? There is no legislation governing the IWF. Content blocking, although requested by the Home Office, is not enshrined in legislation, it is not administered by any government department (which probably, civil libertarians would argue, is a good thing), and the demand for it is not coming from the industry regulator, Ofcom.

Adrian Mitchell of AAISP, which supplies broadband to businesses, homes, and churches, and whose terms and conditions prohibit users from engaging in illegal activities, says: "I am against child pornography as much as anyone else, and I wouldn't want my children abused by anybody. But I can't see how any of the technical measures will stop one child from being abused – but it can provide a mechanism by which government can block content. It can expand as big as it likes once it's in place." ®

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