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Anti-smut boss: 'We won't be net police'

Even if UK.gov thinks IWF are already

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In terms of public awareness, and justification, Hargreaves suggested: "If the IWF has a failing, it is in the fact it has not got across the full story of what it is about: that, in turn, calls for even greater transparency and openness."

As part of this move towards reflecting the public mood, she ticks off recent initiatives, including:

  • An independent audit in 2011 by a panel of individuals, including senior police officers, a barrister and a leading social work expert, which confirmed that all of the URLs on the IWF block list, compiled on behalf of its members, contained only child sexual abuse images;
  • a complaints and appeals procedure in respect of takedown of sites in the UK; and
  • a genuinely cautious approach to images blocked, including very careful consideration of any images considered to be at "level 1" – the lowest level of seriousness on the sentencing scale, including erotic posing, but not nudity.

Referencing the infamous Scorpions case, when an IWF block on an album's cover artwork (already in wide public circulation) led to a temporary block of parts of Wikipedia, she adds: "The fact that there has been no repetition of the Scorpions incident in the last three years suggests we have been listening and learning."

She also admits that the IWF is still debating whether it should seek additional judicial oversight.

In recent years, the IWF has widened its net slightly. To its original concern with child abuse images, and imagery that breaches the Obscene Publications Act, it has added "extreme porn" (2008) and "cartoon images" of child abuse (2009).

The first two remain a very small part of the IWF’s work and the focus of the second is largely on images that are bestial in nature. In respect of cartoon images, the IWF dealt with just six such images in the UK last year – all of a highly realistic nature – and none so far this year, at time of writing. In none of these categories does the IWF operate blocks: rather, it reports the matter to the local police and lets them take the matter forward.

Which brings us full circle to the question of whether the IWF is in danger of turning into a "net police"? Hargreaves thinks not: "There is no one on the IWF board from the police. Members come from a range of backgrounds, including human rights and some have strong anti-censorship views: the role of the IWF is to implement a takedown and filtering of material in line with what the industry wants."

And there, she suggests, is the heart of the matter. It is not unusual to hear the IWF praised by government – or even ministers suggesting, sotto voce, that the IWF could be used as a solution to this or other problems, namely online bullying, terrorist sites and even piracy.

But so far, all such pressures have been resisted. MPs, she tells us, “recognise that the IWF does what it does best by sticking to a very specific focus”.

Greater transparency and wider public involvement in the work of the IWF is definitely desired. In the end, though: "The IWF is very clear as to its remit, which is in line with what the UK internet industry wants it to take up. There are no plans to change that remit – and that is what makes the IWF strong". ®

Bio

According to the IWF website, Hargreaves has worked in the charity sector for 25 years, "most recently as CEO of The Society of Dyers and Colourists". Before that, the IWF says, she held a series of "senior positions" running membership organisations.

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