Over the weekend, this very interesting story about Wikipedia and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in the UK developed. I’m still always surprised when things that I have been talking and thinking about for years leap from something that gets chatted about at techie law conferences to popping up on the Today programme (listen to it here), with no halfway house.

Anyway, the story is probably familiar to most readers by now! I think the most important thing will be some public discussion on the role of the IWF, which while a core issue in Internet law and policy, is in my view a relatively unknown one more broadly. Indeed this may be an error or a misjudgement, but in a way they have done us all some service.

Here goes. The IWF is a private body that plays a role in the regulation of UK Internet access – not a statutory role but a self-regulatory role. I should be upfront and say that I’m generally critical of these arrangements – seeing them as in some cases even worse than formal State ‘censorship’, as transparency and accountability are typically absent. Anyway, the current situation developed after the blacklisting of a Wikipedia page – the IWF has played a dual role in the control of alleged child pornography, sending takedown notices to UK-based content (though I understand there’s little of that in any event) and creating a blacklist of non-UK content which ISPs then proceed to block (usually by returning a page not found error when the user heads to the URL) through the Cleanfeed system or an alternative.

In this case, the page was about an album by the Scorpions called Virgin Killer. (Link is to the said page and may not work depending on your ISP). The album cover features a (partially obscured) photograph of a naked female child although the block is the page containing the information about the album as well as the photo itself. Amusingly, the image is widely available across the Web on all sorts of sites – it is apparently a controversial one to begin with (though you can walk into a shop and buy it in its real form as a container for music). Another consequence is that due to the sharing of IP addresses (a common ISP practice), a big chunk of the UK is banned from Wikipedia editing. Oops. Still, might mean that productivity will rise for the day 😉

The IWF’s statement is available here. It is summed up best by the comment that the IWF spokesperson finished her interview on the radio with: “We apply the Protection of Children Act and the UK sentencing guidelines”. For me, it goes to the heart of the problem here – laws designed for courts and judges becoming the responsibility of private industry – the difference being there is a weaker right of appeal. There is some legitimacy provided by the involvement (for training and for the appellate stage) of police – but there is a reason that laws are not enforced by the police alone. It might seem trivial to some, and I’m certainly not going to go down the Danger! Police State! route – but it is a system of some concern to me and I imagine to others who believe in the regulation of some objectionable content but with proper democratic safeguards in place as a core aspect of the system, not an afterthought. In particular, given the suggestion that the system could be rolled out for other types of content (extreme pornography, suicide websites, promotion of terrorism, etc), or used as a policing tool, or used in IP enforcement, it’s time to address these problems before any extension is even considered. The big question of whether an IWF decision and/or an ISP action is judicially reviewable, one of my favourite discussion points for this topic, must be answered as soon as possible. This is by no means a new issue – Lilian Edwards wrote an editorial on the subject in volume 3 of SCRIPTed – but there is no clear, binding answer, particularly with reference to the fully private activities like Cleanfeed – indeed it is quite likely in the UK that without legislative intervention of some sort, public law remedies, let alone the Human Rights Act, are closed off. (TJ McIntyre adds below that the IWF itself has very recently accepted it is subject to the HRA as a public body)

More: Slashdot, The Register, AP, Guardian, and a long list of articles, responses and points from Wikimedia itself here. I am indebted to users of org-discuss for some of these links.

Finally, Ian Walden of Queen Mary gave an excellent paper on the subject at the SLS Media & Communications section in September (I shared a panel with him and with Mike Varney of Hull), which was one of the clearest description of the IWF/Cleanfeed that I have heard so far, which has made it much easier to follow what’s going on. TJ McIntyre (UCD) has also used Cleanfeed as a case study in his well-argued paper at BILETA 2008 (blogged here and now published here).

On a final final, and hopefully helpful note, BoingBoing has a nice diagram of filtering in the UK, perfect for use in lectures/seminars or presentations.