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Watching Big Brother

So, who's heard of the Internet Watch Foundation? Me neither, but we should have. If you're in the UK - and especially if you're with certain ISPs - they're deciding what you're allowed to look at on the internet. El Reg has the story:

Six British ISPs are filtering access to Wikipedia after the site was added to an Internet Watch Foundation child-pornography blacklist, according to Wikipedia administrators.

As of Sunday morning UK time, certain British web surfers were unable to view at least one Wikipedia article tagged with ostensible child porn. And, in a roundabout way, the filtering has resulted in Wikipedia admins banning large swaths of the United Kingdom from editing the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit."


The "ostensible child porn" was a Scorpions album cover from 1976, incidentally. Apart from the "secret censorship" issue - I certainly didn't know that my ISP was limiting my internet access based on a list from a non-accountable association - what's really aggravating me is that not only are they censoring my internet use, they're lying about it. If I follow a link that they've censored, I get a "404 not found", rather than a "Censored". Grrrr. I really like my ISP, and there are workarounds to the censorship, but this sucks. I'm thinking of phoning them just to register a complaint, but I don't know if it'll do any good.

On the bright side, people seem to be making a fuss about it. It's probably lucky that they've managed to be so incompetent as to manage to block most UK users on these ISPS (Virgin Media, Be Unlimited/O2/Telefonica, EasyNet/UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, and Opal) from editing Wikipedia, otherwise it wouldn't be getting nearly so much attention. And of course, thanks to the Streisand effect, the censored page in question is currently getting nearly twice as many hits as any other wiki page.

Can't stop the signal.

Comments

( 13 comments — Comment )
(Deleted comment)
pickwick
Dec. 7th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
Eeep!
sbisson
Dec. 7th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC)
Oh it's worse than that.

They're also broadcasting fake BGP routes to their proxy forcing downstream ISPs to use it too - except they don't allow them access to the proxy, so all users get is a blank HTML page for any Wikipedia content...

Took my ISP 48 hours to figure that one out and fix it...
(Deleted comment)
pickwick
Dec. 8th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
...Wow, I had no idea that could even happen. Not good.
astartesyriaca
Dec. 7th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this... disappointed to see my ISP participating. Will complain!
pickwick
Dec. 8th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
I've complained...I think my ISP's response (Be) can mostly be defined as "sitting on the fence until we see which way the wind is blowing", if that's not too mixed a metaphor.
dakegra
Dec. 7th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
hmm. I'm on plusnet and I can see the wiki page (and image)

am I missing something? Or have they fixed it?
zagreb2
Dec. 8th, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
>am I missing something? Or have they fixed it?

They've almost-certainly fixed it. Like I said, I don't think this was IWF bullheadedly trying to stop people viewing an image, it was most probably someone somewhere being a jobsworth and overextending the definition of child porn to mean "picture of a naked girl on the cover of an album that's been available for decades". They did the wrong thing, they've fixed the issue. That's it.
zagreb2
Dec. 8th, 2008 02:10 pm (UTC)
>Apart from the "secret censorship" issue

It's not really "secret censorship", it's not a surprise that ISP's are censoring child pornography whose illegality is neither widely-unknown nor controversial. What seems to have happened here is an outside agency being overzealous in its definitions. This is more a case of people being jobsworths than Orwellian state interference.

According to IWF's site their issue is with "Child sexual abuse content hosted worldwide and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK". I've no problem in censoring any of those things, in fact they come under the very few things that I think a liberal democracy has the right to censor. The issue should really be about whether the IWF is doing its job properly (it didn't in this regard) not whether the Foundation's intent is sinister. It clearly isn't.
pickwick
Dec. 8th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
Well, it is secret in as much as the vast majority of people didn't know it was happening! Not many people have heard of the IWF, the ISPs were distinctly quiet about the fact they were restricting their customers' internet usage on the basis of the recommendations of an unelected, unaccountable group, and the majority of the ISPs were going out of their way to AVOID being transparent about it, which is why they were using fake 404 error pages rather than an explanation of what was restricted and why. (Demon gets an honourable exception from that bit; they send you to a page explaining about the IWF.)

I don't think the Foundation's intent is sinister, but I think the power they have definitely is, and power + incompetence is a terrifying combination. I don't want to see this crap on the internet either, but I would rather it be reported and the site asked to remove it, rather than it being left there and one country (or rather, the non-technical parts of one country, since there are so many easy workarounds) being unable to access part of the open internet.
zagreb2
Dec. 9th, 2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
Well, it is secret in as much as the vast majority of people didn't know it was happening! Not many people have heard of the IWF, the ISPs were distinctly quiet about the fact they were restricting their customers' internet usage

But my point was that people expect images/data such as that the IWF censors to be censored so what's going on isn't really "secret" in any way. If we had a government agency censoring things on the internet that there's no legal nor moral concensus on censoring then you'd have a better basis for calling "foul" but, y'know, what IWF is doing is what people actually both want and expect to happen. All that's happened here is that they've overextended themselves and (given that they didn't censor Amazon) in a hypocritical and confusing way. The fact that we all know who did it and why also damages the argument that this is secretive.

on the basis of the recommendations of an unelected, unaccountable group

Holding nationwide elections for IWF membership isn't really practical, and I wouldn't say they were completely unaccountable; this furore basically proves that (although I would like to know to what extent they are *legally* accountable).

and the majority of the ISPs were going out of their way to AVOID being transparent about it, which is why they were using fake 404 error pages rather than an explanation of what was restricted and why

If the ISP can't get through then a 404 page is what will appear by default; I think it's more likely that it was appearing because no specific "explanatory" page had been created rather than that the ISP's had built a fake 404 page to fool people. That's the wrong thing to do, of course, but I don't think it's get hot under the collar about. And, as you said, Demon do it properly.

I don't think the Foundation's intent is sinister, but I think the power they have definitely is, and power + incompetence is a terrifying combination.

Don't you think "terrifying" is a bit extreme to describe a group whose stated purpose isn't actually controversial? If they were arguing for wide-ranging censorship powers then I'd say there was something to get worried about but IWF are very specific about what they're censoring.

I don't want to see this crap on the internet either, but I would rather it be reported and the site asked to remove it, rather than it being left there and one country (or rather, the non-technical parts of one country, since there are so many easy workarounds) being unable to access part of the open internet.

That's not really practical because the sites that tend to host this kind of stuff are, I'd imagine, in countries where the law is either ineffective or disinterested in cracking down on it. The best way to control access to this stuff is for UK-based ISP's to agree to restrict access to it. There are a few things I'm concerned about (ie I'd rather IWF's recommendations had to pass an independent panel before being implemented to stop nonsense like what's happened over the last couple of days) but I'm certainly not against censor this sort of thing, specifically, in theory or practice.
zagreb2
Dec. 9th, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC)
The "ostensible child porn" was a Scorpions album cover from 1976, incidentally.

Interestingly, on a forum I post to this story managed to get a thread devoted to it and a few people clicked the link (the "Streisland Effect", there ;) ) and actually said that they were shocked by the image and wished they hadn't seen it which I found interesting given that I've seen it before and didn't find it that shocking (mainly because I couldn't help but see it in context) although I found it extremely tasteless and typical of the ugly sexism in 1970s rock generally. Other people pointed out that the image isn't even necessary for the article in question since an alternative album cover was released and could be used.
( 13 comments — Comment )

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