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IWF rethinks its role

Ministry of Justice misleads on extreme porn

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Anger at aborted attempts by net censor, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) to block material hosted on Wikipedia earlier this week may lead to radical changes in the way the organisation works - it has already changed the way the organisation is perceived.

However, a campaign to turn the IWF into a classificatory system for the internet is likely to fail, as advice given out by the Ministry of Justice turns out to be seriously misleading.

One of the organisations opposed to the extreme porn legislation, Consenting Adult Action Network (CAAN) has been seeking official guidance for individuals uncertain whether material in their possession would fall foul of the extreme porn law, which comes into force in January 2009. Although the Ministry of Justice has provided advice as to what would be illegal in general terms, the consensus is that this is just too broad, and individuals need more specific assistance.

To date this has not been forthcoming and, as reported in the Register earlier this week, the police do not yet appear to have a view. Both police and the Ministry of Justice have told concerned individuals to send such material to the IWF for assessment.

This led to a suggestion from CAAN, which also sprang up within the bdsm community, that perhaps people could use the IWF in a positive manner. A spokeswoman said: "individuals could refer material to the IWF and, if they did not then block it, it should be safe.

"Since the Ministry of Justice has repeatedly claimed that the new law will only catch material that would already be illegal under the Obscene Publications Act, a window of opportunity exists for people to refer material on sites outside the UK to the IWF, obtain an assessment as to whether it is obscene, and then act accordingly.

"Such material could even be released in the UK with an ‘approved by the IWF’ tag".

However, the IWF poured cold water on this idea, pointing out that such material was wholly outside their remit. A spokeswoman for the IWF said: "Our role is that of an assessment and takedown body: we are not there to provide classification advice for the public.

"In respect of indecent material featuring child abuse, our remit covers sites hosted both in the UK and overseas. We will refer sites hosted here to the police for futher action, and where we deem sites hosted abroad to contain potentially illegal material, they will be added to the list of blocked sites that we provide to ISPs.

"That is not the case with Obscene material: nor will it be the case with extreme porn. With those categories, our remit will only go so far as to refer sites hosted in the UK to the appropriate authorities."

This leaves the Ministry of Justice with some considerable egg on its face. The government case for legislating against extreme porn was precisely because this material originated overseas and could not be blocked in the UK. It should therefore have been fairly obvious that the IWF could not provide advice on whether material would be covered by this act.

We asked the MoJ why they were directing individuals to seek advice from a body that is unable to assist them, but have so far received no response.

The exception to the above would be material hosted in the UK: if UK-hosted material has been referred to the IWF and the police have not subsequently kicked the host’s doors down then there may yet be room for an "IWF-approved" tag.

In fact, the matter is slightly more complicated, as the recent referral of the Girls Aloud case to the police made it clear - even where material is hosted abroad it can be considered to have been published in this country – and therefore subject to our Obscenity law - if the poster resides in the UK.

The amount of material that could be put to the test in this way is therefore slightly wider than just material hosted in this country. However, it still leaves wide open the question of where to get your advice about extreme porn.

In a separate development, the IWF admitted that following on from last week’s events, a review of its procedures was now under way and it would be consulting with the internet industry and service providers.

Ordinary internet users are unlikely to be involved in this consultation.

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