Sunday, December 07, 2008

Wikimedia vs. Internet Watch Foundation

The tech media are all abuzz over how the Internet Watch Foundation has recently added a page on Wikipedia to its "list of pages that contain child porn". This has had the effect of causing all web traffic to any Wikimedia site from any customer of the several ISPs that subscribe to the IWF's filtering service to be forced through IWF's proxy filter so they can block access to the (so far) one page that they've found that contains child porn. A side effect of this is that Wikipedia (the English Wikipedia, at least) has had to block all editing from anonymous persons on the affected ISPs, because they cannot "differentiate different users, and block those abusing the site without blocking other people as well."

Most British ISPs voluntary agree to filter web traffic through their networks for content which violates UK law. Most of them use the services of the Internet Watch Foundation, which is a non-governmental organization with close ties to the Home Office and other law enforcement entities, but not a law enforcement organization in and of itself. I haven't been able to dig out the details of the 1996 agreement that created the IWF, but I get the feeling that there was an undertone of "you do this voluntarily or we will force you to do it" and the ISPs agreed to it because they didn't want the negative PR of appearing to be on the side of child pornographers. Anyway, the IWF provides its clients with lists of URLs that contain "unlawful" content, which its clients are required (by contract) to block. They may not manually review the lists, but must use them exactly as provided by IWF; the IWF is the sole party responsible for the lists.

Wikipedia has an article about a 1970s album by the Scorpions (a German hard rock band) titled "Virgin Killer". The original cover for this album featured a naked prepubescent female with a "cracked-glass" effect covering her genitals; this cover was extremely controversial and was rather quickly withdrawn and replaced by a much tamer cover for most distributions, although it is still possible to buy copies with the controversial cover on it, even in the UK.

Someone (anonymously, presumably) reported the page to the IWF as a "webpage containing potentially illegal content". The IWF reviewed the article and concluded that the image "may be illegal in the United Kingdom" and added the article to its blacklist. Doing so forced the subscribers to IWF's blacklist to force all traffic to any site hosted on the same server as (which is to say virtually all Wikimedia sites) to be passed through the filtering proxy in order to detect and block any attempts to access the article. As a side effect, this caused everyone who goes through the filters to appear to Wikipedia's security systems to appear to be coming from the same IP, which significantly undermines Wikipedia's internal security measures; in addition, at least some of the proxy filters are unable to cope with the load and are reportedly generating random page load failures and other problems in addition to blocking access to the page in question.

Somewhat strangely, IWF did not block the image itself; they only blocked the Virgin Killer article and the "image page" for the image. If the image were to appear on another article, that article would be left untouched, and the image would be displayed. The image in question appears on articles on at least four other Wikimedia projects, none of which were being filtered at last report.

Wikipedia has responded with a cavalcade of screeching about the evils of censorship; a handful of editors who have argued for removing the image have been shouted down and in some cases blocked from editing. Although I have seen no public statement from the Foundation, rumor has it that there have been conversations between the IWF and Sue Gardner (WMF's executive director), and the WMF has sent demands to the ISPs to discontinue the filtering. There appears to be no possibility that Wikipedia will consider removing the image, or even diminish its prominence. Some editors even argued for a hard block of all UK IPs "in order to send a message" that censorship is wrong. In addition, the raw inconvenience that has been imposed technically on UK editors has profoundly upset many UK editors.

There's so much to comment on here. On one hand, we have ISPs imposing filtering that their customers haven't specifically asked for, using filter lists from a self-governing third party that appears to be responsible to no one, so as to require the filtering of an image that is almost certainly not illegal under the relevant law. The filtering is done so badly that it fails to block most uses of the content that is alleged to be illegal, and also blocks content which is not alleged to be illegal (specifically, the text of the article about the album, which is not alleged to violate any law at all). Finally, the technical solution used is apparently not robust enough to handle the traffic caused by forcing most of the UK Wikimedia-related traffic through its servers.

On the other hand, we have the ideologically detached Wikipedia community that has steadfastly refused to contemplate that there are topics, and especially images, which, while they should be available, ought to be placed behind "shields" of some sort so that they are not unexpectedly displayed to readers who are likely to be offended by them. The Wikimedia Commons by now quite likely has the largest collection of free porn on the Internet, and there are just a plethora of articles on Wikipedia about thoroughly prurient topics that are certainly of interest to some, but at the same time are not the sort of things that most people will want children exposed to uncontrollably. Wikipedia's community, however, has steadfastly insisted that "Wikipedia is not censored" and thus steadfastly, even defiantly, almost always refuses to conceal, minimize, or shield prurient, offensive, or shocking images. (Thus, if you happen to be reading Wikipedia from work, absolutely do not hit "random article"; you might well end up with an image of gay sex on your screen.)

Now, I'm a pretty committed civil libertarian; I think censorship is wrong, and I object to the imposition of content filtering on anyone's internet connection for any purpose except at the express request of the customer. So it's very much my wish that this particular filtering scheme be attacked on general principles. However, it's clear to me that this filtering scheme is well-established in Britain (it's been in use on at least one of the ISPs there since 2004, based on one article I read) and there doesn't seem to be much public dissent to its use. Not being British I don't have a really big dog in this fight, and there are far worse offenders on this issue than the UK.

I also take issue with the IWF filtering the article instead of the image. Surely their technical people realize that images within a webpage load independently of the webpage itself, and that they can block just the image without blocking the rest of the article. I question why they did not do this in this case, as it would have been the least intrusive means to accomplish this.

On the technical issue regarding the IP appearance issue, the reports are that the IWF is willing to work with the WMF to sort out a solution that avoids this. If I understand the situation, this is just a matter of them ensuring that XFF works correctly in their proxy, and that their proxies are properly registered with the WMF.

The one thing that would have probably rendered this situation less problematic would have been if the IWF had contacted the WMF when it reached the determination that the content was illegal under UK law. Not only could the WMF have advised the IWF on the least intrusive manner to block the image, but they could also have ensured that the necessary forwarding configuration was in place to avoid the disruption that occurred over the past few days. That said, I suspect that had the IWF attempted to contact the WMF, they would have gotten nowhere; it's likely that the WMF would have either ignored the communication, or responded with hostility instead of attempting to cooperate, or to negotiate a compromise solution.

It's my position that this image should not be blocked. The fact that the exact same image is in use on Amazon UK's site without any action taken against Amazon suggests that there's hidden motivations on the IWF's part here. And it seems quite likely that the WMF's general incompetence combined with the complete lack of community leadership within the English Wikipedia will combined to prevent at sort of compromise solution; the WMF has nobody with the competency to negotiate one, and even if they did there is no effective way to impose it on the community because of the lack of leadership within the community. So I strongly suspect that the IWF intends to stand strong on this one, secure in the understanding that this is one they can win.

Go ahead, Jimmy, Sue, and Mike. Prove me wrong. I dare you.

P.S. Other coverage: Seth Finkelstein, Danny Wool


  1. Thanks for the link.

    1) "and the WMF has sent demands to the ISPs to discontinue the filtering."

    I disbelieve. The WMF can't do that, in any non-silly sense.

    2) "; it's likely that the WMF would have either ignored the communication, or responded with hostility instead of attempting to cooperate, or to negotiate a compromise solution."

    Ignored, could happen. Hostility, no. As a guy who was businessman on the fringes of the pornography industry, Jimmy Wales knows the topic, and he's shown that in the past. There's a big, big, difference between the endless ideological arguments, and when The Law comes knocking. Don't confuse the sort of slick marketing the WMF does against ranters, with real live legal issues.

  2. 'ought to be placed behind "shields" of some sort so that they are not unexpectedly displayed to readers who are likely to be offended by them.'

    I think we're also seeing a major failure of the internet standards groups and web browser authors. If firefox had built-in opt-in filtering I bet lots of people would use it and Wikipedia users would even willingly mark up the content to help it work better.

    While I'm pretty far from prudish, I'd likely use such features while browsing Wikipedia in places where some material may be considered inappropriate. Sadly the industry has really dropped the ball on this.

  3. The idea of an industry agreeing to "voluntary" censorship under implied threat of forced censorship if they refuse is just how we got the Comics Code Authority in the United States, which imposed heavyhanded censorship of comic books for decades starting in the 1950s, when there was a moral panic about the evils of comics. This led to comics being bland for a while, killing off the likes of the early '50s EC horror comics, and only beginning to crack in the '70s when comic companies started exploring more controversial themes in the name of "relevance", with Marvel once publishing a Spider-Man issue without the Comics Code seal when a drug abuse story was refused by the Code.

    This sort of "voluntary" industry censorship makes an end run around the due process required by actual legal action, allowing things to be censored that would normally be constitutionally protected.

  4. Seth, on the issue of demanding the ISPs stop the filtering: I tend to agree with you that such demands are silly, but keep in mind the identity of the attorney who is representing the WMF. I was talking to someone earlier who believes that both the WMF and any person who has edited the article have causes of action against the IWF (the WMF for "impersonating their servers", the editors for defamation). And this is a person who is normally pretty reasonable.

    The WMF operates very much in a cult mentality, with a very powerful echo chamber effect that tends to lead people to believe, against all reason, things which they'd normally quickly reject as barmy if they weren't "under the influence".

    As to their handling of legal issues, two points. First, again, consider who their attorney is. Second, I used to be on the team that handled legal matters, and I've seen them work. An aggressive, hostile response would be pretty likely, in my experience.

  5. The largest collection of free porn (for certain values of free and porn) is probably still on flickr.

    The IWF never contacts people it blocks because a number of them are probably not the kind of people a halfway respectable organisation would. It is understandable that rather than making a decision over who they should contact they don’t contact anyone.

    Filtering could be done by preparing lists for dansguardian. Any such list would have to be done by a third party though and so far no one has.

  6. The image isn't on; it is, however, on

  7. You say that there doesn't seem to be much dissent about the IWF in the British public - that's mainly because we had no clue it even existed. I'm pretty net-savvy, and I had never even heard of it until 48 hours ago.

    Oh, and as an admin on the Wikimedia Commons, thanks for the compliment - we aim to please.

  8. Thanks for the link, Kelly. Like you, I believe that the page and image should never have been censored. That said, I also agree that the WMF is not in a position to butt heads with the IWF. I don't think it would be wise to do that either. As you point out, a quick perusal of Commons will lead to plenty of other "reasons" to censor content. The result is a genuine dilemma, where no solution is wholly satisfactory--neither the WMF or the IWF will give up on this. Perhaps that is why a compromise is the best option after all.

  9. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.

    The basic fact here, the WMF is right, and the IWF is wrong. The image should stay; the image must stay. If it goes, then it opens a slippery slope, on two fronts: One, it means that the people who want the Muhammad comics gone will have new ammunition. Two, it will show that Wikimedia cares much more about complaints from white people in Britain than from Arabs in the Middle East. Neither can be allowed to happen.

  10. Children are not mentally tender as IWF seems to believe; I grew up on a farm, having to walk 1.5 miles to school everyday; our town was dis-incorporated to save money. We saw animals breeding, and even stray dogs breed on the on the schoolyard. Our dogs had puppies; we had real things to worry about; rabies, Spanish Fighting Bulls being moved over open roads, dangerous boar hogs, Guernsey cows that tried to hook us, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, cottonmouth moccasins, dangerous trucks hauling logs at top speeds, with suspect brakes. I had to dodge all of these before the age of five, and also took the 14 day Pasteur treatment for rabies, was struck at by a rattelesnake, in a narrow path, that I jumped over what I thought was a stick, but suspected might be a snake. We also heard a Panther Scream, 350 yards away. If I had seen pornography, it would have been like some two legged dogs breeding. But back then, there was little pornography, people were working too hard to waste time on such, and this was before President Eisenhower's ill advised National Defense HighWay Network, and the later abundance of autos. Professor Barbara Oakley has written a book, "Evil Genes," that stats psychopaths, sociopaths, anti-social personalities, and borderline personalities, all have the same sort of Evil Genes, and what they do is are determined by their Evil Genes, to do what they do. While people with a very High Concentration of Good Genes, rise to the very top of society, and have homes in Palm Beach, Florida, so do those with a High Concentration of Evil Genes. Solution: require everyone to give a DNA Blood Sample, when they apply to their local Motor Vehicle Bureau, to get either a Driver's License or a Motor Vehicle Bureau issued ID Card. Let these and the State Highway Patrols, be taken over by the US Border Patrol. The US Border Patrol, needs to become an Independent Agency, absorbing Customs, Immigration, the Coast Guard, yhr DEA, and the F.B.I.'s National Security Division. The rest of the FBI can be transferred to the Internal Revenue Service. The Drug Insurgency in Mexico, is Killing Police,the Mexican Equivalent of Cabinet Secretaries, kidnapping and executing many Army Soldiers and Army Officers, and is starting to operate across the border in the US. The Drug Insurgency will soon be operating here in the US; unless steps are taken such as I have suggested. After WW I, Germany had a Border Patrol of Ten Thousand former soldiers, as the US Borders are so much larger, The US needs a Border Patrol of about 100 Thousand persons. Obama's proposed appointee to the Homeland Security, which must be broken up, is totally unsuited for the job. She had some Border Patrol Officers Falsely Prosecuted, for trying to arrest some Drug Smugglers, so Governor Napolitano, may likely be influenced by the Mexican Narcotics Gangs, which will soon dominate Mexico. Eventually, the US is going to have to overrun from the Rio Grand to the Colombian-Panamanian Border, and give it the status of Territories. The US and Canada need to merge. Many poor people are forced by the Mexican Monopolists to flee to the US to avoid starvation. The Mexican and American Monopolists, must be dealt with by combining The Sherman Anti-Trust Act with the RICO Act, and letting Monopolists be tried by Military Courts Marshals, under the Old Articles of War, as at the Post WW II, Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, as were the Nazi War Criminals. France is the best ran nation in NATO, and is adapting better to Globalization, than any other Nation of NATO, including the US. The Rockefeller Sponsored John Dewey system of Education, which is based on Bullying and Cultural Deprivation, of not only the Phonetic Alphabet, but all Values accumulated over thousands of years of Greek and Hebrew, and later European Civilizations. Basically these values were accumulated because of Europe's favorable agricultural wealth, favorable terrain and moderate climate for self-defense, and favorable cultural interchange with the Semitic Peoples, Phoenician, Hebrew, Judaic, Arabic, Berbers, and others, in a Mediterranean Equivalent of Globalization. Europeans came from Mesopotamia and also united with the Norse Peoples, who were very liberal about the rights of women and their children.