Watching the Internet Watch Foundation

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As you've probably heard, the Wikipedia page censored by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is now freely available again:

Following representations from Wikipedia, IWF invoked its Appeals Procedure and has given careful consideration to the issues involved in this case. The procedure is now complete and has confirmed that the image in question is potentially in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978. 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.

It's interesting that the IWF re-affirms its decision as to the nature of the image – and then simply ignores it, citing “the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability” as factors in the U-turn. Those seem to me to be sensible criteria, since it would also cover provocative works of art that have been around for some time, which potentially could be caught by this kind of censorship. But it does underline the fact that the 1978 Act is not well framed, and needs to be replaced by something more precise and proportionate. And I suspect that the global outcry the initial censorship provoked may have had something to do with the latest move.

Perhaps the most significant part of the statement explaining the decision is the following:

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.

It's good that the IWF has understood what is sometimes called the “Streisand Effect” - that trying to stop people from accessing something online has precisely the opposite effect. But it's not just “on this occasion”: it will always be this way when self-appointed censors try to block something that many feel should not be banned. The next time the IWF decides to censor something on a high-profile site, it will produce exactly the same result – not least because people will now be monitoring the IWF and its actions very carefully. Maybe it's time to create an Internet Watch Foundation Watch.

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