The Big Question: What does censoring Wikipedia tell us about the way the internet is policed?

Why are we asking this now?

The internet is commonly thought of as a pervert's playground, a lawless domain beyond the normal strictures of national legal systems, with plenty of dark corners where the usual limits of decency are suspended. But a recent decision by the UK's internet watchdog is not merely a fringe matter: it has made a page from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia inaccessible to most internet users in this country. The decision and its aftermath raise the question of exactly how far online censorship should go.

So what was the web page in question?

The entry that is now banned is not obviously explicitly sexual in its content: at first glance it seems like any other page in Wikipedia's vast repository. This one deals with an album by 1970s German metal band Scorpions called Virgin Killer. The element of the page that makes it problematic is the picture of the original album cover that accompanies the text: the image shows a girl aged about 13 posing naked with only a crack in the camera lens covering her genitalia.

Who decided it was illegal?

The British body that regulates what content reaches internet users is called the Internet Watch Foundation, or IWF, which is a charitable body mostly funded by the British internet service providers. It also receives some funding from the EU. The IWF is entrusted by the Government and police with judging which online content is illegal and should therefore be removed.

How does the IWF work?

The IWF only makes assessments of websites where the content in question is brought to its attention by a submitted complaint. Once it is informed of a particular case, it makes a judgement about whether the content is "potentially illegal" or not, and assesses the severity of the offence on a five-point scale. (Most of the examples it looks at, including the latest Wikipedia case, are potential child abuse images – but the organisation also bears responsibility for other categories of criminal content, including racist abuse and extreme or violent pornography.) If the organisation's assessors decide that the law is being broken, it places a block on the web address in question that is picked up within 24 hours by the internet service providers that subscribe to the service – which cover about 95 per cent of British internet users. The web page in question still exists, but almost anyone attempting to access it from within the UK will be met with a message saying that the page cannot be found.

How active is the body?

Last year, the IWF reviewed more than 34,000 submitted URLs, compared to just a few hundred in the year it was founded, 1996 – a heavy workload for its four members of staff that are trained to assess the material. Of that number, around 3,000 contained images or text that the organisation deemed to be potentially illegal.

And is the approach successful?

It is hard to say, precisely: much of its effect will make itself felt in areas where statistics are hard to come by, such as the number of attempts to access illegal material that are denied. But the IWF points to one powerful piece of evidence for its success: it says that when it was founded, 18 per cent of the reports it received referred to British web pages, a proportion that has now dropped to less than one per cent. It has also been successful by another measure, too. The body was founded as an attempt by the Internet Service Providers and authorities to avoid regulation, which the ISPs feared would be expensive and difficult to comply with. So far, the approach has proved broadly acceptable to both parties.

What general criticisms are there of the body?

Most in the industry think that it does a good job. "The Internet Watch Foundation has a tough job and an important role in protecting our children," says a spokesman for one of the ISPs. "We just have to support them – we can't pick and choose." But advocates of internet freedom may feel some unease over the fact that the IWF can effectively make unilateral decisions about whether online content is illegal or not. While the material that is banned is officially deemed "potentially illegal", no one has ever successfully brought a court case that has disputed the IWF's designation. On the one hand, this could be seen as evidence that the organisation makes excellent decisions; on the other, it could be seen as proof that the body has an unhealthy level of control over the material that is allowed by British ISPs, and that there is bound to be a chilling effect that dissuades those who would dispute the IWF's conclusions from pursuing their case.

How has the Wikipedia community responded to this instance?

Mostly unfavourably. Many users of the website feel that this is an example of unjustified censorship: they argue that few potential paedophiles will be using Wikipedia as their source for illegal material, and that a widely viewed album cover that has been in public circulation for decades should not be so easily removed from public access. Some of the anger is the result of the fact that this is the first time the IWF has censored a web page with such a mainstream audience. There is also an argument that the internet comes in for unfair special treatment on this kind of matter, partly because of public concern about the use of the internet as a way for paedophiles to access child pornography. David Gerard, a Wikipedia volunteer and spokesperson in the UK, points out that it is available offline as well: "I personally find it distasteful. But is it illegal?.. Are the police going to go into libraries and rip out the offending page?"

Why is Wikipedia the only site to have been censored?

The IWF is in a difficult position because its charter limits it to making decisions about websites that are brought to its attention by third parties. It cannot unilaterally decide that a website should be banned. That means that the image from the Scorpions' album cover actually remains easily available on a wide range of other sites accessible in the UK, including Amazon's American operation. Since the initial decision was reached, another complaint has been brought to the body's attention, about the Amazon version of the image. That instance may be acted on shortly; but it is unlikely that every web page on which the image can currently be found will be removed from the list of available content.

Are there any alternatives?

In the UK, the IWF is the main gatekeeper. Worldwide, there are 33 other organisations that do similar work under the umbrella of an international association called the International Association of Internet Hotlines, or INHOPE. But that means that there are many other countries with very little regulation of the content produced within their borders. As long as that situation applies – and it looks likely to for a long time – the IWF looks bound to stay.

Is the IWF the right way of keeping illegal material off the internet?

Yes

*The system has worked well, with few complaints about its operation, for more than 10 years

*Any system that can avoid imposing additional legislation has to be a good thing

*The IWF is able to respond much more quickly to potentially illegal material than alternatives could

No

*An organisation that polices illegal material by banning 1970s album covers has its priorities wrong

*It is not right for such a small organisation to make such significant decisions on a daily basis

*The fact that the IWF is funded by internet service providers may lead to claims of a conflict of interest

a.bland@independent.co.uk

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Graduate Consultant - Sales Recruitment - £35k ote

£18000 - £25000 per annum + £35k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: Looking for your first s...

Recruitment Genius: Advertising Media Sales - Print, Online & Mobile

£19000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing house has been ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Award winning Peterborough base...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?