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Brit ISPs censor Wikipedia over 'child porn' album cover

Virgin Killer births mass edit ban

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Updated Six British ISPs are filtering access to Wikipedia after the site was added to an Internet Watch Foundation child-pornography blacklist, according to Wikipedia administrators.

As of Sunday morning UK time, certain British web surfers were unable to view at least one Wikipedia article tagged with ostensible child porn. And, in a roundabout way, the filtering has resulted in Wikipedia admins banning large swaths of the United Kingdom from editing the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit".

On Friday, Wikipedia administrators noticed that Virgin Media, Be Unlimited/O2/Telefonica, EasyNet/UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, and Opal were routing Wikipedia traffic through a small number of transparent proxy servers as a way of blocking access to the encyclopedia's article on Virgin Killer, a mid-1970s record album from German heavy metal band the Scorpions.

At it stands, the article includes an image of the album's original cover, which depicts a naked prepubescent girl. The cover was banned in many countries and replaced by another when the album made its 1976 debut. And apparently, the image is now on a blacklist compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation, a government-backed organization charged with fighting online child pornography in the UK and Europe.

According to posts on Wikipedia and Wikinews, users of those six ISPs receive blank pages, "404 errors" or something similar if they attempt to view the Virgin Killer article. But that's half the issue.

Because the six ISPs are routing Wikipedia traffic through transparent proxies, huge numbers of would-be Wikipedia editors appear to be coming from the same IP range. A single IP, for instance, may identify all Virgin Media users. This means that if Wikipedia admins ban one Virgin Media customer for "abusing" the site with inappropriate edits, they ban every Virgin Media customer.

According to ZDNet, many UK users receive this message if they attempt to edit the site:

Wikipedia has been added to a Internet Watch Foundation UK website blacklist, and your Internet service provider has decided to block part of your access. Unfortunately, this also makes it impossible for us to differentiate between different users, and block those abusing the site without blocking other innocent people as well.

In Wikiland, this creates an epic user-generated conundrum. Wikipedia fancies itself as a kind of Web 2.0 wonderland where anyone on earth can contribute. So it doesn't like banning edits from enormous chunks of the UK. But administrators have refused to remove the naked prepubescent on the grounds that "Wikipedia doesn't censor."

According to admins, the issue is now in the hands of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that oversees Wikipedia. But as of Sunday morning, the Foundation had not spoken.

Whether it removes the naked prepubescent or not, the Foundation will receive an uncensored Web 2.0 tongue-lashing. Wikipedia isn't a user-generated utopia. It's a cultish self-contradiction that can't help but undermine its own ideals. ®

Update

The IWF has acknowledged blocking Wikipedia's Virgin Killer article via British ISPs. A spokeswoman told The Reg that the organization believes the album cover image includes content that is consistent with the legal definition of child abuse, pointing out that under the UK Children Act, the only issue at stake is the content – not the intent of the publisher.

However, as of Sunday evening UK time, the offending image is still freely available on Amazon, and as the controversy over Wikipedia rolls on, it is being reproduced on hundreds of sites available in the UK and across the world.

David Gerard, an (unofficial) Wikipedia UK press spokesman, takes issue with the fact that ISPs are blocking not only the image but the associated text of the article: "Part of the problem lies in the fact that the IWF have not just blocked the offending image, but have blocked the accompanying text as well. We cannot be certain, but we suspect that had they stuck to their remit of focussing on pictures, the problem might not have arisen."

Update 2

According to Wikipedia admins, British Wikipedia editors are being hidden behind a small number of IP addresses because the ISPs' proxy servers are not passing Wikipedia the "X-Forwarded-From" header, which would allow the site to identify the true IP range of individual users. It's unclear whether a workaround is possible.

Naturally, Virgin Killer is now among the most popular pages on the English-language version of Wikipedia.

The IWF has also posted a statement on its website. It reads, in part:

A Wikipedia web page was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109). The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment. The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.

Meanwhile, a Wikimedia Foundation spokesman has acknowledged that huge numbers of British ISPs users have been blocked from editing Wikipedia, but did not seem to comment further: "It appears that there's a large number of editors — I can't say all — who appear to have access issues," he told THe AP.

Additional reporting by John Ozimek

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