Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/12/29/iwf_feature/

IWF reforms could pave way for UK net censorship

Who is watching the watchers?

By Wendy M. Grossman

Posted in Networks, 29th December 2006 07:02 GMT

Analysis By the end of 2007, the Home Office intends that all ISPs "offering broadband internet connectivity to the UK public" will have implemented systems for content blocking, primarily intended to block access to pornographic images of children, which are illegal to view or possess in the UK.

Vernon Coaker, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, noted in an answer to a Parliamentary question in June that if the target is not achieved the government might consider legislation.

No one in the industry can even guess at how much it will cost ISPs overall, and it is not even entirely clear what's meant by "public".

If you are, for example, a small ISP nominally reselling BT's DSL service as part of a consultancy service and most of your 500 customers are businesses but those companies request that you also supply lines to the homes of directors and staff, are you offering broadband to the public?

Even the Home Office doesn't seem entirely sure. A spokesman says only: "It's important that we get the definition right."p>

At the heart of the content blocking plan is the ten-year-old industry self-regulator Internet Watch Foundation, which supplies members – formerly just ISPs and now also mobile network operators, content providers, and search engines such as Google and Yahoo! – with the list of sites to be blocked. The list, for which members pay £500, £2,000, or £5,000 a year, is derived by investigating reports from the public.

Based on recommendations in an unpublished report seen by The Register, which the IWF commissioned from Julia Unwin, OBE, a former charity commissioner, the IWF is considering revising its governance structure to become more independent of the industry that created it.

The IWF was founded in 1996 as ISPs' response to the threat of regulation. Although the IWF has at various times considered expanding the range of material it recommends for removal from British servers, it is not known to have gone beyond the illegal material it lists in its remit. Currently, this is: "child abuse images" hosted anywhere in the world, and also incitement to racial hatred and obscenity if hosted in the UK.

Content with content blocking

Peter Robbins, the IWF's executive director, notes, however: "It's very rare for [the latter] to be hosted in the UK." And, he says, "There are always going to be debates about what is illegal content on the internet, but I think there is a clear understanding among people in the know, including on our board. That remit is paramount. Taking down child abuse images is very clear. It's illegal around the world, and there doesn't seem to be much dispute about what the definition of a child abuse image is. That's why it's successful."

Everyone quoted here is firmly against child abuse. Nonetheless, issues such as the IWF's accountability and the Home Office's desire for universal content blocking excite some controversy.

Official estimates are that 80 to 90 per cent of British subscribers are already behind content blocking systems such as British Telecom's Cleanfeed, a figure Robbins says was calculated by "another organisation" he declines to name. But raising that to 100 per cent is more complicated than "let them eat Cleanfeed".

Kevin Hones, co-founder of Watchfront, a specialist ISP, provides bonded channels to improve upstream bandwidth for small businesses hosting their own servers, some of those in individual homes. Is that public? "I would hate to have to trim customers," says Hones.

He thinks that although the future of consumer offerings is likely to be the cheap, filtered standard product, the top-level transit providers who shift data should remain exempt.

"I hope they never get involved in content filtering, because that's breaking the internet."

The costs of doing business

Even some large ISPs that are clearly in the consumer broadband business aren't sure how much it costs, although BT is reported to have spent £1m on developing and deploying Cleanfeed, which at the time required original research. AOL, for example, which is a member of the IWF and whose policy analyst, Camille de Stempel, serves on the IWF board, says it can't separate content blocking from its general array of user controls.

"It's just one of the costs of doing business," says spokesman Jonathan Lambert.

For other ISPs the cost of content blocking is unpredictable; it depends on many variables including how their networks were designed, how complex they are, whether they implemented proxy caching in that days when that was fashionable to conserve bandwidth, and, less importantly, how big they are. For our hypothetical provider, the cost of the IWF subscription is minor compared to the cost of installing and configuring hardware, which could be enough to drive it out of business.

Cleanfeed is also not the universal solution it sounds like, even though most DSL suppliers "resell BT". The further an ISP is from simple rebranding, the harder it is for it to use Cleanfeed – unless it reengineers its entire product.

But in any case, Cleanfeed is not a panacea; Richard Clayton, a researcher at Cambridge University's computer laboratory, noted in a recent paper (PDF) that Cleanfeed's two-part design, intended to make the service cost-efficient and accurate, avoiding overblocking, can be hacked to turn it into an oracle that compiles a list of the blocked sites. Clayton says, like other security systems, there is no such thing as a "fit-and-forget" content blocking system: it must be constantly updated to ward off attacks.

Robbins calls Clayton's research an "academic paper", and says it would take a lot of work to keep the detected list up-to-date. He notes, however, that the IWF's actual purpose is to protect consumers from accidentally committing the crime of looking at child abuse images. "We're not there to stop determined paedophiles, because they're always going to find a way around it."

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) intends to discuss Clayton's paper to consider the issues it raises.

The founding of the IWF was a response to government and law enforcement pressure and the threat of regulation. Despite general agreement that the organisation has been successful, and the fact it has been widely copied around the world because of that success, the threat is still there.

The Home Office says: "We have always been clear that if we cannot deliver universal blocking by working with ISPs we will look at other options." However, the spokesman adds: "We still have the view that legislation is unnecessary, and we don't think we would have achieved what we have with legislation."

Creeping missions

Keith Mitchell, technical director of the UK Internet Forum, was one of those involved in setting up the IWF, and he believes the persistent threat of legislation is unfair since the industry has "acted in good faith", and also that government pressure over time has changed the IWF's structure.

"I think it's been definitely subject to mission creep," he says. The IWF's structure has moved away from its industry roots since its founding during the last years of the Major government. "The Tory model was self-regulation; the Blair model is co-regulation." When Blair's government arrived, they ordered a review: "Then the balance tilted away from the industry and governance changed."

When IWF started, in contention were 133 Usenet newsgroups that the police wanted blocked. At that beginning, he says, "the principle was that newsgroups should not be blocked. That policy changed after the review." The IWF's list now includes 270 newsgroups, although its main activity concerns the web".

Robbins notes that the IWF does not attempt to deal with instant messaging or peer-to-peer networks. "We don't have a remit to deal with the private transfer of content from A to B. We are aware that people swap images in those areas, but it's a police matter. Notice and takedown, that's our role. You can't do that on P2P and IM."

He adds: "I'm against censorship. I don't see us as a censorship body. We deal with illegal content and get it taken down where we can."

Are the experts in control?

Mitchell says over the IWF's 10 years the composition of the board has changed; its current make-up beyond the three industry representatives is almost entirely child protection experts, with the odd lawyer thrown in. There is no one now, as there has been in the past, whose primary interest is civil liberties or consumers. Although incitement to racial hatred is now listed in the remit, there is also no one who specialises in race relations.

However, the IWF is putting in the effort to make its policies and deliberations transparent: its policy documents are on its website, and it publishes the minutes of board meetings, including the list of who was present. Board members are recruited through press advertisements and personal recommendations.

Before 2000, the IWF was governed by two boards, one an industry board made up of IWF funders, and the other a policy board recruited by invitation and made up of representatives of relevant interest groups. Since 2000, the IWF's 70 members –  ISPs and others, plus ISPA and Linx, belong to a Funding Council, which sends three representatives to the board of 13 (including the chair). The other board members are independents.

Unwin's coming report recommends reviewing the role of the Funding Council and regular reviews of the Code of Practice, possibly incorporating an "independent element".

The Code of Practice is the set of notice and takedown rules to which members agree; there is no element of policy in it. She also suggests turning the Funding Council into more of an industry forum that passes recommendations to the board, seems to find it redundant that the views of both member companies and trade associations are represented, and thinks the right of veto over the board that is retained by the Funding Council could be damaging if subject to scrutiny or what she calls the "select committee test."

If Unwin's recommendations are adopted, the result could be greatly diminished industry control over the IWF.

Mitchell thinks ISPs would be justified in resisting this loss of control. "I think the ISPs are justified in wanting their safety zone of the veto until and unless the government is prepared to demonstrate more trust in the successful track record of industry self-regulation by lifting the constant spectre of legislation."

That spectre means, he thinks, that although the funding council could theoretically block the board's decisions by pulling the plug on funding (if the current formal right to veto were removed), it could not afford to do so.

"In practice this doomsday scenario has rather less weight as the immediate government response is likely to be statutory regulation," he says.

Unwin's recommendations are still being studied by the IWF and its members.

Robbins says, however, "Amanda Jordan [the IWF board chair] and Julia Unwin have made it very clear that the Code of Practice is where the industry has its major interest. They own that, and are the ones that would change that after various consultations. So in terms of the self-regulatory approach to the Code of Practice, that's more focused and strengthened."

Accountable to whom?

But, he goes on, policy areas such as charity law, financial risk, police liaison, and services such as supplying the database of child abuse websites to be blocked are not part of the Code of Practice.

"The board owns those, as opposed to the industry. They need to be developed in partnership with the industry," he says: "But actually the micromanagement of the IWF, like any other structure, should be through the board predominantly, who develop policy and then consult with those players they think are appropriate in the circumstances."

He also believes that if Unwin's recommendations were implemented, ISPA and Linx would wind up in a stronger position than now. Though, he adds: "They may disagree."

The big question is: if industry has less control over IWF, to whom would it be accountable? There is no legislation governing the IWF. Content blocking, although requested by the Home Office, is not enshrined in legislation, it is not administered by any government department (which probably, civil libertarians would argue, is a good thing), and the demand for it is not coming from the industry regulator, Ofcom.

Adrian Mitchell of AAISP, which supplies broadband to businesses, homes, and churches, and whose terms and conditions prohibit users from engaging in illegal activities, says: "I am against child pornography as much as anyone else, and I wouldn't want my children abused by anybody. But I can't see how any of the technical measures will stop one child from being abused – but it can provide a mechanism by which government can block content. It can expand as big as it likes once it's in place." ®