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Scorpions tale leaves IWF exposed

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

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Unfortunately, it cannot pick and choose who to take on. The Children Act penalises the production and possession of "indecent" images of children. The bulk of images against which the IWF acts are categorised as level one, involving some element of sexual posing of a child. This is both the least serious category, and the category where there is likely to be most public debate as to whether an image actually is indecent.

Some images - shock, horror - are neither clearly one thing nor another.

So the scene was set for the IWF to take a fall. Gone is its record for 100 per cent undisputed blocking. Gone, too, is its reputation for being the undisputed good guy. Many people have looked at the image in question and have taken the view that it is not porn, or indecent, or abuse. Having made that judgement, they have started to ask questions about other imagery that the IWF has sought to block.

The absolute certainties that underpin a view that claims indecency is always porn is always abuse are shaken. Not least by reports that the child - now an adult - whose image lies at the heart of this controversy, is reported to have no regrets at all in respect of the photo.

There has been other criticisms. People dislike the idea that the IWF does not tell sites that they are being blocked. Nor are they impressed by ISP's blocking sites and displaying an inaccurate "404" error message.

Then there is the IWF claim that it only ever blocks illegal material. This is untrue: it blocks the URL containing the potentially unlawful content - there is nothing illegal about the words that accompanied the illustration of the Scorpions' album cover. According to the IWF, this has always been its "standard practice", and "this approach suits ISPs".

There is also the question of the IWF's selective application of the law. According to the body, it only looks at material once it has been reported. So its failure to apply the same strictures to Amazon or HMV had nothing to do with the ability of those organisations to employ more expensive, harder-hitting lawyers.

The IWF approach works for simple page-view content. When applied to a slightly more complex website, it had the unintended consequence of taking out far more function than just the single page.

This is the story of The Emperor’s new clothes retold for the internet age. The IWF has taken a hit, though for now the damage is mostly amongst a technically-savvy audience that already had its doubts about the operation. It comes away from this weekend looking inflexible, reactionary, authoritarian and ever so slightly shifty.

The IWF is left with two serious problems. This episode highlights major weaknesses, both in the capability of the IWF to fulfil its remit and in its ability to do so without future collisions with the IT community.

Second, as a senior member of ISPA remarked recently, the IWF's efforts are costed and resourced according to what it does now. If a by-product of adverse publicity is a growing level of activist complaints designed to disrupt their working, they may find it difficult to cope, as well as find their operation exposed to greater and greater levels of public scrutiny.

That in turn will impact on government desires to extend regulation of the internet in the UK. Debate on the issue just got a whole lot more interesting. ®

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