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

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