IWF chief: We don't need crusaders
El Reg speaks to URL-blocker boss Peter Robbins
Robbins rejects claims that the IWF is too police-oriented, citing instead a practice group put together to evaluate the material they work with, which draws experts from a broad range of disciplines, including lawyers and child protection specialists.
Is the balance about right? He suggests that there might be a role for the IWF to bring in further input from outsiders.
Is blocking of URLs – the activity that is most associated with the IWF, courtesy of a list compiled by the IWF and passed to subscribing ISPs – the right way to go? Why not more emphasis on takedown?
Again the P-word. Robbins argues that the current system is pragmatic. He says: "URL-level blocking is about right. We’d like more takedown – but we are in the hands of law enforcement agencies around the world, and if they can’t or won’t act swiftly, we have to do something."
For the future, there are a few pointers. He doesn’t see the UK model shifting much. It is a minority approach – with the majority of other countries’ efforts to police the net mediated through official law enforcement bodies. But it works – and he does not see much government appetite for imposing change. On the subject broached by the Digital Britain Report, of expanding the remit of UK model to cover Europe, he is tactfully polite – but unenthusiastic.
On the questions that have excited the anti-censor lobby, he suggests that if anyone has an issue, it should be with the underlying legal position, as the IWF does not make the law. He says: "We are not in the business of going into grey areas. We don’t want to be forever embroiled in controversy over pictures that are borderline. There is enough serious child sexual abuse material out there to keep us very busy."
However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency. He cites a recent case where pictures were taken of children clothed and with parents present.
"The key," he suggests "is context". Which brings us round to the infamous Scorpions episode, in which an IWF block on a picture of an album cover that had been kicking around since the late 70s resulted in the rapid and widespread propagation of an image that would otherwise have had little publicity.
"My team were right to block it," Robbins asserts, "and the Board were correct in their decision to unblock it. However, the IWF has learnt from that incident.
"Context includes not just how the picture is used, but how it is viewed by the world in general. More investigation would happen if such a picture came up now - with hindsight, if the same circumstance was repeated, we probably would not block it."
So the IWF is not looking to cast its net wider and wider? "Not at all," he says. Robbins is politely dismissive of the way in which politicians reach for the IWF whenever they need to bolster their plans to censor some new material. "The difference," he adds, "is that child sexual abuse material is almost universally illegal. That is not the case with websites advocating suicide, or even terror."
The number of URLs on the IWF blocklist – around 500 - is close to an all-time low. Something is having an effect across the globe, and Robbins does not expect the IWF to pick up the slack by going for more borderline material. In the end, he says, he would be happiest of all if the entire operation could pack up and go home.
Peter Robbins’ contract has just over two years left to run. After him, who knows? Another ex-policeman? A retired judge? A politician? Undoubtedly, the IWF will continue to excite controversy and strong opposition.
Under Peter Robbins, at least, a central aspect of its mission – to defuse criticism, and to brand the IWF as an innocuous and cuddly helper in the business of law enforcement – would appear to be in safe hands. ®