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The IWF: Charity disparity?

Pinning down who's really being protected

The Internet Watch Foundation is under fire again, this time on the grounds that it shouldn't be classed as a charity. The challenge comes from a Yorkshire-based software developer, who spoke with The Register on condition that we respect his confidentiality.

"I have nothing against what the IWF do in respect of child porn, but they seem to be getting far too big for their boots," he said. "Telling people what they may or may not look at on the net does not feel like a charitable activity: and the recent Wikipedia fiasco suggests an unhealthy degree of 'project creep' on their part".

Unlike many who have sounded off about the IWF online, this individual has taken the matter further, discussing the matter with the Charity Commission and this week lodging a formal complaint. In his letter to the Commission, he writes:

I do not dispute that it may well serve a useful purpose in regulating the worst of the internet, only that this is not really a charitable purpose, and that the Internet Watch Foundation exists mainly to serve the interests of the subscribing members (mostly consisting of Internet Service Providers), rather than the general public at large.

It was formed to help protect those members against excessive government regulation, as was the BBFC in the early days of cinema. Please note that the BBFC video and film censors NOT a charity and neither should the Internet Watch Foundation be considered one.

The Charity Commission confirmed that they are looking into this matter, and directed us to a rather circular explanation: "Charitable purposes" are those that fall within the descriptions of purposes capable of being charitable set out in the Charities Act 2006 and that are for the public benefit.

More to the point, anyone wishing to inspect the IWF’s registration may look it up onsite. It states that the purposes of the IWF are:

(a) the promotion of the care and protection of the health and welfare of the public in particular children and young people by working to minimise the availability of potentially illegal or otherwise harmful content on the internet.

(b) the prevention of crimes relating to offences involving exposure to illegal content on the internet in particular by: (i) operating a hotline enabling the public to report such instances; (ii) operating a notice and takedown service to alert hosting service providers of such criminal content found on their servers; and (iii) alerting relevant law enforcement agencies to the content.

"c) to further such purposes as are recognised as exclusively charitable under the law of England and Wales.

It may be the case – indeed, the IWF themselves admit as much – that part of the initial drive towards their creation was concern by ISPs that they might otherwise be subject to prosecution - but that is not inconsistent with their present objectives.

According to the BBFC, the reason that they are not a charity is quite simple: although they are a regulator and outwardly do much that is similar to the IWF, their main role lies in the classification of films, for which they levy a (hefty) fee. They have significant commercial income – turning over several million pounds a year - and therefore they are constituted as a Limited Company, rather than a charity.

A spokeswoman for the IWF said: "The IWF attained charitable status in 2004 in order to subject itself to more robust governance requirements and the higher levels of scrutiny and accountability which charity law, alongside company law, brings with it. As a self-regulatory Hotline and 'notice and take-down' body we strive to meet good practice standards in such matters.

"This includes having an independent Board Chair, four Board Committees, a Funding Council of over ninety companies, independent external inspection by relevant eminent professionals and strategy and policy development processes founded in consultation."

Our guess is that the challenge will go nowhere. It is, however, further evidence of the risk, noted at the time of the Wikipedia affair, that the wider the IWF draws its remit, the more it will find its activities subject to question and challenge. ®

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