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.

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