Wind up the Internet Watch Foundation

Wind up the Internet Watch Foundation

Summary: When web services suffer in the name of censorship, freedom becomes a commercial imperative

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Over the weekend, thousands of UK web users found their access to Wikipedia curtailed or removed altogether, without warning or explanation. Over time, the facts leaked out: the UK's Internet Watch Foundation, a quasi-governmental entity, had received a complaint about an album cover pictured on Wikipedia, had decided it was illegal, and had instructed all UK ISPs to block it.

Whether that decision was correct or effective is a good and important question: our opinion is that it was farcical at best. But the immediate consequences of that decision require close scrutiny. Because of the way the block was implemented — a proxy that collapsed all outgoing IP addresses into one — Wikipedia's normal operations were hugely disrupted. There is also some evidence that at least one UK ISP mishandled the request, causing misroutes that removed Wikipedia altogether from parts of the UK internet.

That's bad enough. Once the problem had been identified, however, it was compounded by the lack of co-ordination behind the initial action. There was no one person to talk to — the Internet Watch Foundation itself is remote and reluctant to discuss details. The ISPs were ill-informed and ill-prepared to cope with floods of angry users.

If this had been a case of pure censorship, then we would have the luxury of discussion over time. It wasn't. It was a direct denial-of-service attack on a third-party web service, sponsored by the state. That it happened through incompetence rather than maliciousness is an extenuating circumstance: it does not negate the crime.

The same image IWF deemed illegal remains available on countless e-commerce sites, including Amazon. Amazon is one of the big cloud service providers. It is therefore demonstrably vulnerable to such state-sponsored denial-of-service attacks, as is any other cloud provider. How that will affect decision-making over whether to move enterprise-critical services onto the cloud is unclear, but it raises a whole new set of concerns that must be addressed.

It is essential that if the state is determined to censor the UK's internet feed, it must take responsibility for the effects — intended and unintended — of doing so. That means clear lines of command, clear and effective channels of communication to cope swiftly with problems, and a service-level agreement between the state and its citizens — corporate and individual — that guarantees no disruption to services.

Much easier, of course, to say the responsibility for illegal content lies with those who would break the law with it, and leave that decision up to them. To bring down one of the internet's most-used resources because of one example of 1970s bad taste may be ridiculous, counter-productive and indefensible, but it has served one useful purpose. It has illustrated the futility of censorship in an open society, and the damage done by forcing it closed.

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • please stop peddling this hysterical freedom twaddle

    I am so sick of this style of rubbish. You have taken a minor cause for concern and turned it into a massive deal over nothing, and you do this so you can push your hedeously naive free everything ideology.

    You use a faulty mechanism in the system designed to remove child pornography and abuse in order to push your anti-patent anti-DRM open source opinion. Shame on you.

    PS to other people reading this. I am also very pro-open source, but am getting annoyed by the amount of dogmatic drivel shoe horned into these articles.
  • If you don't like freedom...

    ...go to China.
  • Amazon?

    The image may well be available on - but it is NOT on - which shows the later cover version used on the album.
  • More ignorance

    All I am saying as this case does not open any real debate into censorship and a "free" society.

    I think its entirely reasonable that the state prevents children from watching certain films. The state has also decided that its reasonable to prevent adults from viewing certain things. I think everyone except peodophiles probably agrees with where the line has been drawn. The only debate should be over its implementation.

    It really annoys me that people invoke the free society ideal. I don't think that the people who use that phrase have any idea about what it means. Does a free society have laws? Can a free society have liable? To pragmatists the answer is yes, censorship is fine, a free society is one that does not contain slaves. Censoring child pornography has nothing to do with a practicle implementation of a free society. Infact allowing child pornography to be viewed and become profitable is the real threat to a free society, becuase the children involved have not made a free choice to participate.

    Using this story as evidence for why censorship is questionable is morally wrong. The real agenda behind this article is an anti-DRM and an anti-patent ideology. This article does nothing but hurt that argument (which I am for). I am asking the freedom for information to consider there choices for battlegrounds more carefully.
  • Principle and practice

    As the article says, the principle of censoring (or not) is ultimately up to elected governments. Not a problem, as long as they take responsibility for what they do, and act to minimise collateral damage.

    At the moment we have IWF acting without warning and refusing to engage in dialogue with Wikimedia, and the big ISPs sloppily blocking a whole article instead of just the image, plus failing to proxy transparently. If they had used X-Forwarded-For headers, most Wikipedia users would never have noticed anything.

    This is compounded by the frankly sneaky attempt to call the filtering system voluntary, and IWF an independent organisation. With "only" 95% of the UK subject to filtering, IWF can avoid the judicial review of its actions that a real government agency would face.

    I don't see any connection between this and anti-DRM campaigning, other than some of the same people perhaps sharing both interests.
  • I am sorry, but...

    First of all sorry for the late reply, I spent my holidays in my country (Greece) and to make you feel a bit better about the situation here I should tell you that I had no internet access for more than 3 weeks because we moved in a new house and the biggest (and public by that time) ISP couldn't arrange to move the telephone line as well.

    Anyways, to this discussion's topic: I agree that we should have some limits and that the "free world wide web" doesn't mean that anyone can do anything he/she wants. Thing is, however, who are those people that choose when and how action should be taken, how are they chosen and who participates in the set up of such foundations?
  • And WHO made the decision in the IWF name

    I have searched the IWF and Googled madly to find the names of the decision makers within the IWF. To no avail as all that is shown as "members" is a long list of the participating companies ranging from Tesco to PayPal to BP to various ISPs, telcos and IT organisations.
    While the IWF is a good thing to keep a paternal eye on the UK net, the composition of the actual "paternal eye executive" must be publicly known and accountable. This executive must be required to be guided by the general attitudes and policies of the member companies/organisations and should have a number of members of the internet using public randomly selected as non executive members.
    Public accountability for decisions made is essential to ensure decisions are well made.