Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/09/iwf/

Scorpions tale leaves IWF exposed

'Look, that regulator isn't wearing any clothes'

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Broadband, 9th December 2008 12:17 GMT

Opinion As the dust settles over the Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) little local difficulty with Wikipedia, the question that needs to be answered is whether this was all just storm in a teacup - or the beginning of the end of a conveniently complacent relationship between government and the internet industry.

Can the IWF now return to business as usual? Or do the cracks that have appeared over the last 48 hours suggest an organisation and an approach that is no longer fit for purpose: a confidence trick that remained aloft only so long as nobody asked what was keeping it there.

The IWF was established a decade ago by UK Service Providers in order to avoid onerous government regulation. Its primary function is to fight evil child pornographers - and content that is obscene or incites racial hatred - and it has undoubtedly had some success.

Less child porn is hosted in the UK than in any other Western nation, and a high proportion of material that seeps through from abroad is quickly blocked.

The IWF is careful to position itself as above any moral judgement. It is merely following orders - in this case, interpreting the Children Act 1978 with the help of training and advice from police specialists. It does not determine the legality of sites. It merely identifies those that are "potentially illegal", and forwards that information to the relevant channels - reporting to law enforcers, adding url details to block lists for ISPs.

The problem is that the world has moved on, both technologically and in its response to the big bad bogeyman of the child pornographer, but buoyed by past success, the IWF and its cheerleaders in government may just have failed to notice.

On the technical front, the IWF has "no role or remit for tackling the distribution of child sexual abuse content through other channels such as peer-to-peer or instant messaging". Nor, we would hazard, through web 4.0 - or other technologies that have proliferated in response to the authorities' crack down on the web.

As critics of the great Aussie firewall have commented, to focus only on web content is to ignore over half the problem.

Then, too, there is growing resentment of the way that the authorities have closed ranks to make debate on issues of child "safety" a taboo issue.

According to the IWF, no one has ever questioned its judgements before. No doubt this would continue to be the case, so long as it confined its attentions to sites and imagery that are clearly produced by child abusers for child abusers.

Unfortunately, it cannot pick and choose who to take on. The Children Act penalises the production and possession of "indecent" images of children. The bulk of images against which the IWF acts are categorised as level one, involving some element of sexual posing of a child. This is both the least serious category, and the category where there is likely to be most public debate as to whether an image actually is indecent.

Some images - shock, horror - are neither clearly one thing nor another.

So the scene was set for the IWF to take a fall. Gone is its record for 100 per cent undisputed blocking. Gone, too, is its reputation for being the undisputed good guy. Many people have looked at the image in question and have taken the view that it is not porn, or indecent, or abuse. Having made that judgement, they have started to ask questions about other imagery that the IWF has sought to block.

The absolute certainties that underpin a view that claims indecency is always porn is always abuse are shaken. Not least by reports that the child - now an adult - whose image lies at the heart of this controversy, is reported to have no regrets at all in respect of the photo.

There has been other criticisms. People dislike the idea that the IWF does not tell sites that they are being blocked. Nor are they impressed by ISP's blocking sites and displaying an inaccurate "404" error message.

Then there is the IWF claim that it only ever blocks illegal material. This is untrue: it blocks the URL containing the potentially unlawful content - there is nothing illegal about the words that accompanied the illustration of the Scorpions' album cover. According to the IWF, this has always been its "standard practice", and "this approach suits ISPs".

There is also the question of the IWF's selective application of the law. According to the body, it only looks at material once it has been reported. So its failure to apply the same strictures to Amazon or HMV had nothing to do with the ability of those organisations to employ more expensive, harder-hitting lawyers.

The IWF approach works for simple page-view content. When applied to a slightly more complex website, it had the unintended consequence of taking out far more function than just the single page.

This is the story of The Emperor’s new clothes retold for the internet age. The IWF has taken a hit, though for now the damage is mostly amongst a technically-savvy audience that already had its doubts about the operation. It comes away from this weekend looking inflexible, reactionary, authoritarian and ever so slightly shifty.

The IWF is left with two serious problems. This episode highlights major weaknesses, both in the capability of the IWF to fulfil its remit and in its ability to do so without future collisions with the IT community.

Second, as a senior member of ISPA remarked recently, the IWF's efforts are costed and resourced according to what it does now. If a by-product of adverse publicity is a growing level of activist complaints designed to disrupt their working, they may find it difficult to cope, as well as find their operation exposed to greater and greater levels of public scrutiny.

That in turn will impact on government desires to extend regulation of the internet in the UK. Debate on the issue just got a whole lot more interesting. ®