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Scorpions tale leaves IWF exposed

'Look, that regulator isn't wearing any clothes'

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Opinion As the dust settles over the Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) little local difficulty with Wikipedia, the question that needs to be answered is whether this was all just storm in a teacup - or the beginning of the end of a conveniently complacent relationship between government and the internet industry.

Can the IWF now return to business as usual? Or do the cracks that have appeared over the last 48 hours suggest an organisation and an approach that is no longer fit for purpose: a confidence trick that remained aloft only so long as nobody asked what was keeping it there.

The IWF was established a decade ago by UK Service Providers in order to avoid onerous government regulation. Its primary function is to fight evil child pornographers - and content that is obscene or incites racial hatred - and it has undoubtedly had some success.

Less child porn is hosted in the UK than in any other Western nation, and a high proportion of material that seeps through from abroad is quickly blocked.

The IWF is careful to position itself as above any moral judgement. It is merely following orders - in this case, interpreting the Children Act 1978 with the help of training and advice from police specialists. It does not determine the legality of sites. It merely identifies those that are "potentially illegal", and forwards that information to the relevant channels - reporting to law enforcers, adding url details to block lists for ISPs.

The problem is that the world has moved on, both technologically and in its response to the big bad bogeyman of the child pornographer, but buoyed by past success, the IWF and its cheerleaders in government may just have failed to notice.

On the technical front, the IWF has "no role or remit for tackling the distribution of child sexual abuse content through other channels such as peer-to-peer or instant messaging". Nor, we would hazard, through web 4.0 - or other technologies that have proliferated in response to the authorities' crack down on the web.

As critics of the great Aussie firewall have commented, to focus only on web content is to ignore over half the problem.

Then, too, there is growing resentment of the way that the authorities have closed ranks to make debate on issues of child "safety" a taboo issue.

According to the IWF, no one has ever questioned its judgements before. No doubt this would continue to be the case, so long as it confined its attentions to sites and imagery that are clearly produced by child abusers for child abusers.

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