Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Updated Tuesday, 16th December 2008
Mike Richards takes a detailed look at the complex world of Internet censorship

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No don't worry, I haven't gone all classical on you. The title of this article is from the Roman poet Juvenal and can be translated as 'Who Watches the Watchmen?' It's not even a plug for a 1980s comic book - soon to be a movie. Instead I want to talk about the role of censorship on the Internet; after all, it's not just in China where a huge chunk of the Internet can be censored by an unelected body. The same has just happened in Britain.

The controversy is centred on a Wikipedia page for The Scorpions, a German group from the 1980s. The article was illustrated with a picture of the album cover of Virgin Killers; featuring a photograph of a naked prepubescent girl, in what may be described as a provocative pose. The same cover art has been on the album for over twenty years and the music has been openly sold by major retailers, both on the high street and online. Until now the album had languished in uneventful obscurity. However, following a complaint by a user to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a quasi-legal UK censor, most British Internet users were barred from accessing the Scorpion’s page, and unregistered users of Wikipedia were no longer able to make edits to the encyclopedia. Days later, large retailers began removing pictures of the Scorpions albums from their websites and there was even media chatter of blocking access to the Amazon site. Had the world gone mad?

Not quite.

Those of you who've been reading these postings for some time – first of all, thank-you; secondly – you will remember that your computer's connection to the Internet is anything other than direct. When you request a page from a web site, your computer does not immediately drag data from the remote server, instead a whole series of computers owned by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) are involved. Some of these machines are devoted to turning human-readable addresses  (URLs) into unique machine readable addresses (IP numbers), others are dedicated to storing copies of frequently-requested pages; but yet more computers are devoted to filtering web pages based on content – and these computers exist to protect ISPs from legal action.

Although many long-term users of the Internet like to think of it as a place where 'anything goes', it is bound by national and international laws. ISPs were given a wakeup call in 1999 when Demon Internet (now part of Thus) were found guilty of libel after they failed to remove defamatory material from their news service. Crucially, although Demon did not publish the original article, they were found guilty of redistributing it to their users. It was clear that the days of the Internet as an unregulated frontier were numbered.

The law that directly affects the Wikipedia situation is the Protection of Children Act 1978 which was enacted following the discovery of a child pornography ring in the United States. The law has been amended a number of times since 1978 to reflect changing circumstances and technological developments. Amongst other offences, the CPA makes it an offence to manufacture, distribute and, crucially, possess material that is considered obscene.

Possession not only includes owning physical documents such as books, magazines and photographs, but also possessing computer files. The PCA is a relatively unusual law in that it places so-called 'strict liability' on anyone who is found to possess obscene material – that is they have to demonstrate there is a good reason for them to own the material, otherwise they are considered to be guilty of an offence. So, it is theoretically possible to be in breach of the CPA simply by visiting a web page containing obscene content.

With the best intent in the World, the British government has tried to limit the distribution of child pornography in the UK, but they are faced by a very real problem. The Internet poses a real problem for national law; it is supranational and constantly changing. What is considered obscene in one country may be unremarkable in another or even protected under laws guaranteeing free expression. If material cannot be removed at source, there may be another solution.

As Home Office Minister Vernon Croaker wrote in a Parliamentary answer:

Recently, it has become technically feasible for ISPs to block home users’ access to websites irrespective of where in the world they are hosted. It is clear from the various meetings that Ministers have had with the ISPs, that the industry has the will to implement solutions to block these websites. Currently, all the 3G mobile network operators block their mobile customers from accessing these sites and the biggest ISPs (who between them provide over 90 per cent. of domestic broadband connections) are either currently blocking or have plans to by the end of 2006.

We recognise the progress that has been made as a result of the industry’s commitment and investment so far. However, 90 per cent. of connections is not enough and we are setting a target that by the end of 2007, all ISPs offering broadband internet connectivity to the UK general public put in place technical measures that prevent their customers accessing websites containing illegal images of child abuse identified by the IWF. For new ISPs or services, we would expect them to put in place measures within nine months of offering the service to the public.

The government was originally interested in methods of identifying and blocking child pornography, but has continually pressured ISPs into removing equally provocative material such as adult pornography, religious extremism and terrorism. The Home Office has stated:

At present, the government does not propose to require UK ISPs to block content and our policy is to pursue a self-regulatory approach wherever possible. However, our legislation as drafted provides the flexibility to accommodate a change in Government policy should the need ever arise.

Leading ISPs agreed to set up the IWF as a charitable body with a remit to produce a constantly updated list of web sites and individual pages containing information that may breach one or more UK laws including the CPA. The process of identifying unsuitable content is not automated, instead individual Internet users can make a complaint to the IWF through their website. A single complaint is enough to ensure that an employee of the IWF will screen the material. The IWF employs four police-trained specialists who must make a quite rapid decision over whether a page should be blocked or its content removed.

The IWF has the power to demand that a page hosted on a computer in the UK is removed from the Internet, but it cannot make these demands when the image is held overseas. In these cases, although the data cannot be removed from the Internet, it can be blocked by adding its URL to BT’s CleanFeed database. As well as adding individual pages to CleanFeed, the IP number of the site hosting that page is also placed on to the database. CleanFeed is used by the six largest British ISPs (BT, Virgin Media, Orange, Tiscali, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse) who between them are responsible for about 95% of all domestic Internet connections. Similar technology is used by the remaining ISPs. When Cleanfeed was introduced in 2004 it was reputedly blocking some 11,000 accesses to blacklisted pages every day. By 2006 this had grown to 35,000 every day. At the same time the number of complaints about suspicious images grew from about 3,500 during 2004 to more than 11,000 in 2006; the most recent information from the IWF is that they have received complaints about some 35,000 suspect pages in the last year.

If we now return to how the Internet works. When you request a page, the IP number of that page is first of all examined by a so-called ‘core router’. If the page belongs to a site listed in the CleanFeed database, it is sent to another router for further examination. If the page does not belong to a suspect site, the request is processed as normal and the page returned.

Suppose the requested page belongs to a suspect site. In that case, the page’s address is examined to see if it appears in the database as containing potentially illegal material. If the page is not found, the request for the page is granted and the data will be sent to the user. However, if the page is listed as containing illegal material, the system does not tell the user, rather their browser returns the error 404 – the page cannot be found. This misleading error, not a censor's message, greeted most British internet users when they tried to visit the Scorpions' page on Wikipedia.

The CleanFeed system  led to further problems for people attempting to edit Wikipedia pages. As you probably know, with a very few exceptions, any page on Wikipedia can be edited by any user. This makes Wikipedia a tempting target for vandalism; especially by spammers who want to put advertising on the site’s pages. Such spammers would use a computer to make many edits to hundreds of pages in a very short time. Wikipedia can detect such vandalism; because of the edits would appear to come from the same computer; and blocks the changes.

As soon as the Scorpion’s page and the Wikipedia site appeared on the CleanFeed database, all traffic to Wikipedia was being routed through one of a very small number of proxy computers. All of a sudden, almost every Wikipedia editor in Britain (which accounts for almost 25% of all Wikipedia authors), appeared to be using the same computer. Wikipedia’s own computers considered they were under attack and prevented these proxy computers from making edits – instantly blocking the vast majority of edits originating in the UK. Instead of seeing the editing page, they were greeted by:

Wikipedia has been added to a Internet Watch Foundation UK website blacklist, and your Internet service provider has decided to block part of your access. Unfortunately, this also makes it impossible for us to differentiate between different users, and block those abusing the site without blocking other innocent people as well.

What began the weekend as a technology story of interest to a few computer users had gathered into a potent storm by the beginning of the following week; even being discussed on primetime news programmes. After a couple of days, the IWF agreed to uncensor the image; and within a few hours the Wikipedia site was working normally for British users. However, before we all celebrate a return to commonsense, it is worth pointing out exactly what the IWF has decided. It has not decided the image is perfectly innocent, the IWF still considers the item "is potentially in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978.” Which, if you remember, means you could be prosecuted for owning a copy of the image. The IWF statement then goes on to say,

However, the IWF Board has today (9 December 2008) considered these findings and the contextual issues involved in this specific case and, in light of the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability, the decision has been taken to remove this webpage from our list.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone – the censor is saying the image is potentially illegal, but it is not stopping you from accessing it!

The Wikipedia controversy is already history, but it has raised a number of serious questions that must be answered, if not now, in the very near future. How these issues will be resolved is a very difficult question and we cannot leave it solely to government to make a decision on our behalf. Like almost all governments, the British administration has shown itself to need very simple solutions to extremely complex problems – and these almost never work.

The most obvious point to make is that censorship does not deter criminals. Like similar schemes in China, the CleanFeed block can be circumvented in minutes. Anyone with a small amount of technical knowledge could access the blocked page simply by substituting some characters in the URL or by using Wikipedia’s less-well-known secure address. CleanFeed defeats casual users, it cannot prevent paedophiles and terrorists from sharing distressing and illegal materials when the data is encrypted or transmitted by Internet technologies other than the World Wide Web. John Gilmore, a civil libertarian and the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which fights for freedom of speech on the Internet once said "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

In this case, censorship actually achieved the opposite to that intended. At the height of the controversy, the number of hits on The Scorpion’s Wikipedia page rocketed from a few thousand every day to nearly one million! The image was copied and redistributed around the Internet and huge numbers of people who had never heard of the band were intrigued enough to try and find out more about what they were not allowed to see. This is a fine example of ‘The Streisand Effect’ named after Barbra Streisand who sued a photography company for millions of dollars after finding out her house was visible on commercial photographs of the California coastline. As well as losing the case, Streisand found out that the photographs were more popular than ever before. The IWF has admitted their actions had backfired:

The IWF's overriding objective is to minimise the availability of indecent images of children on the internet, however, on this occasion our efforts have had the opposite effect.

So what can we learn from this fiasco?

Firstly, the IWF is not necessarily malicious, it was set up to try and fight a real horror. Its employees work with the best of intentions, but their remit is unclear and the organization is not sufficiently open. The IWF must be put under some form of external scrutiny, possibly on a statutory basis. At the moment the organization can act without any real constraints and acts as judge and jury. We are likely to see further high-profile cases in the near future as the IWF’s remit expands further. In January 2009 the British government will outlaw so-called ‘extreme pornography’ – a term which has confused the public, lawmakers and the police. At the moment, the Ministry of Justice’s official advice on what constitutes ‘extreme pornography’ is to refer the material to the IWF for their assessment.

Unlike the list of banned movies compiled by the British Board of Film Classification; the IWF’s database of blocked sites is not publically available for scrutiny. It should be – if we are going to be forced to live under censorship, then Internet users must have confidence in the IWF process. We must not only know what is on the list, but why it is there and who made the decision to add it to the CleanFeed list.

Similarly, when the IWF identifies material that may be in breach of UK legislation, it must be obligated to inform the owner of that data. At the moment, the IWF makes no attempt to do so. If material is blocked, the IWF should tell the creator what legislation it falls foul of and of their right to appeal against the decision.

There is a grave cause to worry about the power of the IWF. The Wikipedia case showed that the vast majority of Internet users could be deprived of access to information in a very short period of time with no clear explanation of what was going on. In this case it was nothing more than a half-forgotten group, but is it paranoid to worry about similar techniques being used to block more important, inconvenient information. The rise of the Internet was supposed to bring a time of unconstrained access to information, but quietly, almost without debate, Britain has developed an all-encompassing censorship system that would not look out of place in a totalitarian state. Coincidentally, the government of Australia is attempting to introduce a similar system in that country. Unlike Britain, there has been a vociferous campaign against the introduction of content filtering with thousands of people and even ISPs protesting at the scheme.

But before I sign off; a word of warning to New Labour ministers intent on imposing net censorship; current filtering technology often blocks the word ‘socialism’ because it contains the phrase ‘Cialis’, the name of an anti-impotence drug often used in spam messages. But that’s the problem with censorship, it always has unintended consequences.


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