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2008-12-07 - 00:10:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: Personal: |

Child abuse is, clearly, something that nobody considers acceptable and would want to prevent. Whether it is recent court cases like 'Baby P' in Haringey or the kidnap of Shannon Matthews by her mother we all rightly find such behaviour abhorrent. But are their limits to what should be considered 'child abuse'?

The Internet Watch Foundation is a non-statutory organisation – though funded by the UK government with additional funds coming from the EU – to block "potentially illegal child sexual abuse content". Whilst it doesn't have a legal mandate to do so (though the IWF says they assess sites according to the Protection of Children Act 1978) twice each day they publish a list of URLs (websites) which they say contain "illegal child sexual abuse content" – 'child porn' by any other name. This list is not made public anywhere and if your website is on it you won't be told about it, but the list is used by many of the UK internet service providers (ISPs); the people who provide your connection to the world's internet. Even if you think you have a 'direct' connection to the web your ISP can – secretly and without your knowledge or permission – block your access to websites.

In some ways this may be a good thing. Libraries often block access to salacious pages from their public terminals (although it often has the side-effect of blocking access to support services too) but at home or work you rather expect that as an adult you are treated accordingly and not stopped from accessing whatever you wish to see.

There is a US band called Scorpions and back in 1976 they released an album. An old-fashioned black record in a sleeve. Called 'Virgin Killer'. I am told it sold fairly well, especially in Japan. The cover was, for its time, quite risqué depicting a naked young girl as if behind a cracked glass screen, where the crack covered those parts which would not be on display in polite company. Her breasts, or what there is of them, are quite visible. The cover had overtones of 'Houses of the Holy' by Led Zeppelin, or the self-titled album by Blind Faith with its own young naked girl on the cover.

Now although I would consider an album cover to be art work (whether I liked the particular music therein or not) it appears that not everyone thinks alike as a number of ISPs – on the say-so of the IWF – have blocked access to the English Wikipedia page for ' Virgin Killer', apparently because of the image of the album cover therein. I use Virgin Media cable broadband and cannot access the page, so I can't really comment.

The IWF don't tell site owners when they are blocked, so it is partially guesswork, however a Demon Internet user has noted that in trying to access the page about the record they received the message "We have blocked this page because, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), it contains indecent images of children or pointers to them; you could be breaking UK law if you viewed the page."

Yet where is the problem here? This is not a 'child porn' image, it is an album cover. If you go to buy the record from they will happily sell it to you and show you the original album cover too (three different copies, in fact).

Some might wonder why this matters and, of course, as an album cover of over thirty years ago – before the Protection of Children Act 1978 even came into force – it doesn't. However it does matter when it happens without our knowledge. How are we users to know what other websites are being silently blocked by the government and police? Our ISPs, to whom we pay substantial amounts of money each month for access to the internet, aren't telling us they are blocking our usage. We are regularly told to beware of being redirected to ' phishing' websites trying to get our details yet we now find that the very ISPs are doing exactly this!

There is then the freedom of speech element. The IWF state "potentially illegal". These are not images nor pages which are confirmed as being unacceptable in law, just that someone has complained about them. And as they haven't been tested in a court we again return to the question of where is it to end. Our museums and art galleries are full of images by old masters and new painters and sculptors examining the human form, and quite rightly so. We are not elderly Victorians even covering up table legs!

I'd never heard of Scorpions before this story broke earlier today when Wikipedia administrators were receiving increasing numbers of complaints from users unable to access Wikipedia at all because of the massive collateral damage this one-page block is causing – it is blocking edit access from everyone on these ISPs who is not logged in. I've no desire to listen to or buy this album (or, indeed, look at the cover again). But this is an abuse of my rights as an adult human, and as the purchaser of a service.

I am a customer of my ISP and, as a customer, I pay for the connection between my computer via the internet to those websites and services running on other computers which I choose. It is not for my ISP to restrict my service to a limited selection of sites and services that they approve of (and without telling me) any more than it is for my phone company to tell me which other phone users I may or may not call.

I do not support child porn, but nor do I support unreasonable hidden restrictions posing as 'safety' when they are anything but.

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