Wikipedia censorship case sends 'confusing' message

A legal expert is questioning whether a child abuse watchdog should have reversed a ban on a Wikipedia page.

While the fracas over the censoring of a Wikipedia page in the U.K. has somewhat subsided, the case has imparted a confusing message to Internet users about what is considered an indecent image, according to one legal expert.

After public outcry, the U.K.-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) on Tuesday reversed its decision to block a Wikipedia entry containing an album cover image of a naked girl. IWF publishes a blocklist used by ISPs (Internet service providers) to prevent residential Internet subscribers from browsing pages with child abuse images.

However, IWF -- a self-regulatory body composed of ISPs and authorized by U.K. law enforcement -- maintains the album-cover image is potentially in breach of U.K. law. The image is the album cover for "Virgin Killer," a 1976 released by the German band The Scorpions.

If it is illegal, then "to remove the ban from the page on which it appears is a confusing message for most people to understand," said Struan Robertson, senior associate with the law firm Pinsent Masons.

After the Wikimedia Foundation filed an appeal, IWF decided that the image was widely available and been around for a long time, so it dropped the entry from its blocklist.

Robertson questions that rationality: "If the image is illegal, that should not be grounds for excusing it."

The IWF only blocks offensive pages hosted overseas. If an abusive image is on a server in the U.K., IWF will work with ISPs and the police to get it removed, said Sarah Roberts, IWF's communications director.

If the Scorpions' album cover is hosted on a Web site within the U.K., Robertson said on Friday that the IWF could refer it to the police.

However, the attorney Robertson said it's unlikely the police would get involved in such a case, almost for the same reason IWF reversed its decision: that the image has been widely distributed.

"It would be too difficult for the police," he said. "IWF shot itself in the foot when it changed its mind."

The IWF's block was aimed at a very high-profile target: Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly weighed in against the block. And due to a technical problem connected to the way ISPs use the blocklist, U.K. Wikipedia users couldn't edit pages for a few days, fueling criticism of IWF and raising a ruckus over censorship.

The censoring had the unintended effect of drawing unprecedented new attention to the album cover, which was controversial when it was first released. Also, the entire Wikipedia entry, which detailed the controversy about the image over the years, was blocked, not just the image.

But the IWF has the full backing of the U.K. government, which encouraged ISPs to use the blocklist to combat child abuse images on the Internet. IWF's actions, along with that of law enforcement, have had a positive impact. In 1997, the U.K. hosted 18 percent of the Web sites in the world containing child abuse content; now that figure is less than 1 percent.

The brouhaha this week won't change its mission, but may prompt more careful reflection on it, the IWF's Robertson said.

"We're an organization that tries to learn," she said.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags censorship

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?