Today Britons have woken up to the fact that they are also browsing the Internet behind a firewall similar in some ways to the much maligned Great Firewall of China. Every news outlet is reporting that Wikipedia has been censored in the UK. Several UK ISPs are accused of filtering an article featuring the cover art for the Scorpions 1976 album Virgin Killer (pictured non-offending cover, unless you sufer from extreme hairtyle consciousness). Customers of several UK ISPs found out that they would get a 404 error when trying to access the page (a list of affected ISPs here). I’m in Costa Rica, so I can see the offending image, but plenty of users have complained they cannot.
As it is common with any hint of censorship on the internets, the virtual post-digestive refuse has hit the rotational air-propelling device, and the collective British geekdom has risen up in arms to protest the action. To me one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing is that it has uncovered the underlying architecture of control that rests underneath the everyday workings of the UK’s network connection. There is a little known UK watchdog called the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which is the “UK Hotline for reporting illegal content specifically: Child sexual abuse content hosted worldwide and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK”. What a remit! The IWF does not have direct power to censor the web, but it can issue notices to participating ISPs, which can voluntarily add the offending website to a blacklist (called Cleanfeed). If a user tries to access any of the blacklisted URLs and IP addresses, he/she is redirected to an HTTP proxy server that blocks the offending content. Any other traffic goes through the proxy filter. The IWF has admitted doing the filtering:
“A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109). The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment. The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.”
Nice of them to decide for us. However, this type of hamfisted approach tends to have some other consequences. ORG reports that because one page in Wikipedia has been blacklisted, all of the customers of the filtered ISPs appear to Wikipedia to come from the same IP address (that of the proxy server). The other consequence of course is that censorship online usually backfires spectuacularly (the so-called Streisand Effect), as web users are made aware of the attempt to censor, the offending content goes viral and becomes more popular than it was before the actions. As evidence of this, the Virgin Killer page averaged 500 visits during the previous months (with a peak view of 4,000 views during November. However, the page received 126,000 views yesterday.
So, panGloss warned us about the potential problems of Cleanfeed some time ago in a SCRIPTed editorial. I hate slippery slope arguments, but in this case they are justified. Today it is one page in Wikipedia, tomorrow Google? Facebook? Our much-touted freedoms are slowly being eroded, and the comparison with China is not an exaggeration. We tend to look at the Chinese web and feel a misplaced sense of superiority and smugness. The words mote, beam and eye come to mind.
So, now I leave you with the flowchart that regulates what you can view on the internet in the UK. Enjoy your freedoms.