IWF: What are you looking at?

The Internet Watch Foundation was set up mainly to prohibit child pornography, but a policy change may lead to harmless material being banned. Justified protection or censorship gone mad?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Perhaps you didn't notice. But then, few people outside the organisation did. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which for the past five years has operated a hotline for the public to report illegal material posted to the internet, prepared a change of policy a few weeks ago that includes banning legal material from the internet in Britain. Malcolm Hutty, executive director of the Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain, promptly resigned. "They are recommending the removal of material that is definitely not illegal, and that they know is not illegal, in order to catch anything that might be illegal," he says.

Hutty is only one of a number of board members who have left in recent months. Also gone are chief executive David Kerr (whose five-year term was up), deputy chief executive Ruth Dixon, and Clive Feather, of those who represented the internet service providers who fund the IWF. Feather has long been Demon Internet's point man on internet civil liberties issues, and was one of the IWF's original founders. Dixon is a past president of InHOPE, an EU-funded association of European internet hotline providers, which lists as one of its values "freedom of the internet". Hutty was the only civil rights activist on the board.

The remaining board members, besides the funding council representatives, include a telecoms consultant, a new media researcher who studies how children use the internet, and several child protection specialists, one of them a policeman.

"They are building the IWF up into a child protection lobby, basically controlled by people whose interest is solely in, 'what stuff do we not like because it's bad for children in some way?'" says Hutty.

Hutty says that the IWF now wants to ban some newsgroups on that basis. Newsgroups, and Usenet, are a pesky (to authorities) relic of the internet's early text-only days. The tens of thousands of newsgroups that comprise Usenet are asynchronous discussion boards: people post messages or pictures when it's convenient, and come back later to see the responses. Usenet messages remain available as long as ISPs are willing to hang on to them. Unlike websites, Usenet newsgroups belong to no one, are accessible in many ways, and are impossible to kill off completely because they can be passed between computers, almost in samizdat fashion if necessary. However, ISPs can refuse to carry certain groups. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for British ISPs to ban specific newsgroups through their own servers – but it is not possible to censor all their clients' access to them, because there are multiple computers carrying the same messages all over the world. As net pioneer John Gilmore famously observed: "The internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it."

The newsgroups the IWF now wants to ban include alt.binaries.pictures.gill-anderson, alt.binaries.pictures.kids, and alt.binaries.pictures.teen-idols.princewilliam. Sounds innocent enough, certainly.

Things started to change last summer, when the IWF began discussing the possibility of banning certain newsgroups altogether. If illegal material congregates in specific location, the argument went, then the logical step would be to remove those locations. The anonymised statistics posted on the IWF's own website show that of the 31 newsgroups that would be banned under the new policy the vast majority of content is not illegal. In only two cases does the amount of illegal material even approach 50 per cent. So the objections of Hutty and others was that the IWF would be adopting a policy under which it removed from British servers content known to be legal.

To Hutty, this was a serious enough change of policy to require discussion before the vote was taken. According to him, that was refused, and he therefore resigned. It marks what may be a turning point in the IWF's history – and in censorship by the authorities of the internet in Britain. Most have probably long since forgotten about the IWF, which was launched with a fanfare in the shocked days of late 1996, just after Belgian police had cracked a major paedophile ring. Amidst that atmosphere of "something must be done", the police sent Britain's Internet Service Providers (ISPs) a list of 133 newsgroups that they wanted banned for containing illegal material, primarily child pornography. To ward off the implied threats of government regulation and police prosecution, the IWF was proposed at a public meeting to discuss how and whether to control the internet. Two weeks later, it was government policy.

So the IWF – which now has a list of newsgroups it wants to ban – was initially set up specifically to avoid banning a list of newsgroups. The IWF's focus until now has been on illegal material, and its central activity is operating the hotline to which members of the public can report online material they believe to be illegal. Its funding, of roughly £380,000 for the first nine months of 2002 comes primarily from the ISPs, who send representatives to a funding council, four of whom serve on the IWF board. Some EU funding goes to support the hotline, and the UK government has funded specific projects.

In the five-plus years of its existence, the three to five trained staff have quietly and unobtrusively examined items submitted in about 35,000 reports. In 2001, the IWF received about 11,000 reports (8,039 in 2000, 4,889 in 1999), of which 5,300 were found to refer to potentially illegal material. A single report may contain multiple items; in 2001, therefore, the IWF took action on 8,650 items. Around 150 of those originated in the UK (121 in 2000, 453 in 1999).

Because the police forces to whom the IWF forwards illegal material do not necessarily inform the organisation of what happens afterwards, the IWF can't say how many successful prosecutions have resulted from its work. What staffer Brian Wegg will say is that, "we are aware of 15 police operations that have led to arrests based on reports that we have forwarded within the UK". Of his own experience of inspecting the items referred to in the report, he says: "Grim."

Those numbers are small, and clearly dropped substantially from 1999 to 2000, though they have increased again since. What's not clear is why: is the amount of material in circulation dropping? Are paedophiles diverting it to another location? In any event, the worst excesses of censorship that people feared at the IWF's founding didn't materialise.

Until now the IWF has balanced the interests of children and the legitimate freedom of speech rights of adults as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights. But now there's that list of newsgroups to be banned. The IWF is awaiting legal advice before putting the list into place, just as it is awaiting legal advice on hate and racist speech. The problem for the public is that the decisions over what should be removed from Britain's newsfeeds will be taken in secret. The precise list of newsgroups will not be made public, nor will the criteria for banning.

The problem is not that the newsgroups the IWF wants to ban are particularly loveable, but that banning them creates a precedent for removing perfectly legal material. Roland Perry, director of public policy for the London Internet Exchange and one of the board's funding council representatives, says in fact that very few of the newsgroups have more than 10 per cent illegal content. If the IWF can ban a newsgroup that is 90 per cent legal, what's next? And where does it stop?