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December 7, 2008

Internet Watch Foundation filtering

Lots of talk on Twitter today about this: six major UK ISPs (including mine, the previously-rather lovely Be/O2, also Orange, Virgin, Demon, EasyNet, PlusNet and Opal) appear to be routing all their traffic through just two ‘transparent’ proxy servers, which in turn are loaded with blacklists from the Internet Watch Foundation. The IWF are the quango tasked with policing the web for illegal content; along with the police, they have the power to determine what constitutes child pornography.

All well and good — less child pornography is a good thing, right? — except that the IWF isn’t exactly transparent in their process and procedures. I can’t find a dispute procedure on their site, for example. Which I was looking for, because as of today I can’t create an account at Wikipedia. Huh?

Apparently, all traffic from these six ISPs to Wikipedia is being routed through the two IWF blacklist-loaded servers, and hence many UK users appear to be the same person. So we’re all tarred with the ‘bad apple’ brush. We can still log into Wikipedia and edit pages, but we can’t edit anonymously, nor can we create new accounts.

The starting point appears to be this specific page; if you follow that link and see a page about the Scorpions’ album Virgin Killer, with an image of its original, and controversial, cover, then all is well. If you see ‘404 not found’ then you’re being filtered — remember that Wikipedia invites you to create the page you were looking for, rather than displaying a 404. That error is coming from the proxy server, not Wikipedia.

Incidentally, if you do get the 404 you can still see the page by visiting a slightly different URL. Durr.

What alarms me about this is the lack of openness to the process. It’s hard to see Wikipedia articles silently disappearing on a national basis as anything other than state-sponsored censorship. Cock-up or conspiracy? Doubtless the first. But this is a cock-up that makes conspiracy trivially simple.

Put it this way: if you were the security services, you’d be derelict in your duty if you didn’t have procedures in place whereby you could arbitrarily add sites to the IWF blacklist, and hence now — trivially — have them blocked for basically the whole UK.

And we wouldn’t even know. Unless we were, instead, tunneling all our web traffic via encrypting proxies.

…and if circumventing these restrictions is so straightforward, then what’s the point? You’re not going to block specific individuals or small groups from discussing child porn, or racial hatred, or sedition. All you’re doing is making mass communication less convenient.

Now why would a government want to do a thing like that?

( ZDNet Coverage; Register coverage (they fire a bizarre closing barb at the Wikimedia Foundation); discussion at the Wikipedia admin’s board; Bill Thomson on the BBC more than four years ago, raising concerns about the process. )

[update: Slashdot has it, with the usual quality of discussion. This comment is useful, though.]

[update 2: a calmer and more rational take than mine from Ian Betteridge. Notably, he found the IWF’s appeals procedure.]

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Further to my previous post, some more links for your delectation: The Wikimedia Foundation — the charity behind Wikipedia —... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on December 7, 2008 12:44 PM.

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