Sense and Censor-bility



Photo - Stefan Sealey

Tom Bonnick investigates the murky waters of the organisations self-appointed to police the Internet for us

There are few superlatives yet to be utilised in description of the Internet’s mind-boggling capacities. It is the world’s largest communication platform; the greatest tool for creative freedom for some, and creativity’s greatest threat to others. It is, according to technophiles, the single most significant advance of the twentieth century and, in the minds of some of the more reactionary tabloids, a modern-day Wild West with no purpose other than propagating degenerate pornography and convincing vulnerable teenagers to become anorexic.

Given such a profound ambivalence, then, it is hardly surprising that governments and law-enforcement agencies have had such a hard time policing the ether.

As well as the prolonged and complicated mess surrounding illegal downloading from sources such as BitTorrent — a mess that has arisen entirely because of erstwhile legislators’ failure to anticipate that, one day, this would become a problem — authorities are surrounded with an increasingly fraught set of issues around freedom of speech and the censorship of online content; civil liberties groups on one side, and sensationalist journalism on the other.

In the last decade, several organisations have sprung up to address some of these concerns and fill the void left by the government’s apparent lack of interest in directly legislating on the matter of whether or not the public ought to be prevented from seeing anything on the Internet.

The most prominent of these is the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), who act as a hotline for the public to report illegal content, and are the ‘notice and take-down’ body for the  industry as a whole.

In 2004, the IWF developed a so-called blacklist, compiled of several hundred URLs, to which the Internet Service Providers with whom they work can voluntarily adhere. Any webpage on the blacklist cannot, therefore, be accessed anywhere using one of these ISPs. All of the pages have been deemed by the IWF to contain images of child sexual abuse, and until last year, the whole process had received remarkably little interest from the mainstream media, except to address a few concerns that the list could be reverse-engineered and used for more nefarious purposes.

However, in December 2008, the blacklist appeared in the headlines after a Wikipedia page for a record by 80s metal band Scorpion, entitled Virgin Killers, was added, after its album cover was considered to be inappropriate. The reaction from the press was not so much an outcry, as a cry of bemusement: after all, the album could still be bought on Amazon, and had been around for 20 years — what made it illicit all of a sudden?

After initially sticking to their guns, the IWF eventually backed down and released the page from their list, citing unique reasons of contextuality. I spoke to the organisation’s Communications Director, Sarah Robertson, to ask her about their operations. How was the blacklist started, for instance?

When it comes to the list — and indeed, any contentious issue in which the IWF is involved — Robertson becomes rather self-effacing with regards to the Foundation’s achievements. “Some of our members approached us and asked if we could provide them with a list. It’s not meant to be a large scale answer, but we’ve gradually been developing resources to maintain it.”

And the Scorpions page? How did that business come about?

“Well, that was an anomaly, and it came out in that way.” Still, the only reason for the overturning of the original decision was, after a rejected appeal, the independent board ruling — so how does the organisation safeguard against this sort of thing?

“If you were one of our independent inspectors, appointed by our independent board, you would feel reassured, I suspect.” It isn’t entirely made clear to me why this would be the case.

Thanks to the glowing successes that have come about from the financial market being allowed to run itself, however it pleases, any mention of the phrase ‘self-regulation’ has begun to send my scepticism-sense tingling: the problem with being told that private institutions can run front-line services responsibly, and with the public’s interests at heart, is the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The IWF are different, of course, in that they are not out to make money from their endeavours. Indeed, the worry that has been frequently voiced in the media in the wake of the “Wikipedia incident”, as Robertson calls it — or, as I prefer, “Virgin Killers-gate” — is not mismanagement of the service but, rather, over-eager management.

When I ask whether she thinks self-regulation is the best way of going about business, Robertson offers an impassioned defence of the IWF’s trustworthiness.

“There’s no regulation behind this, and in fact people — stakeholders, the government, everyone — feels that self-regulation can be much more responsive.

Legislation tends to be a lot slower, and by the time it comes to pass, things have changed and there’s a new challenge. And this doesn’t cost you anything!”

The impression I receive — and which I have no doubt conveyed thus far — is that the IWF effectively block websites; for this, however indirectly, is the outcome of their actions: websites are blocked. It seems, though, that I am sorely mistaken, and in this regard, Robertson is far less coy.

“We don’t censor; what we do is provide this list.” Yes, I say, but then ISPs use the list, and then people can’t see things anymore — harmless things about rubbish hard rock bands — and then, those things have been censored. I do not phrase myself quite so facetiously, but the answer is no less emphatic.

“Well, there is no law to do it – it’s absolutely voluntary. Being a member of the IWF is voluntary, and if you are one, then the list is voluntary.” This seems like semantics — whether the Internet is being censored voluntarily or not misses the point; after all, every major ISP is a member of the Foundation.

I am still not entirely sure why this isn’t censorship, even if it’s a good kind. Robertson seems pretty sick of having accusations levelled against the IWF.

“I wonder what conceptual rights you’re defending. If you accept that we’re a relevant authority, and understand a bit more the basis on which we work … It’s difficult, because you have the contextual issues of the Wikipedia incident, so if you take that aside for a moment, around 50% of the sites we deal with are levels 4 and 5 [The IWF use a 1-5 scale to measure the severity of images; level 5 images are of penetrative sex involving children]. Rather than come at it from the Wiki-angle, come at it from the last ten years-angle.”

There is no denying, then, that the work of the Internet Watch Foundation over those years has undoubtedly been an incredibly important kind; work that ought to be done.

However, with so little regulatory control currently in place, the organisation’s position calls to mind the old query best phrased by Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards?