British internet providers have blocked access to parts of Wikipedia after accusations that the site was carrying ‘potentially illegal’ images of child pornography.
Reports from users suggest that Virgin Media, O2’s Be internet service and others have blocked access to at least one Wikipedia article after it was placed on a blacklist by the Internet Watch Foundation, Britain’s de facto online watchdog.
The offending article, about German rock group The Scorpions’ 1976 album Virgin Killers, included an image of the record’s controversial cover – which featured a young naked girl with her genitals obscured by a crack in the camera lens.
The image caused controversy when the album was first released, and was eventually replaced in most countries – including the UK and United States – by a shot of the band. However, the original album cover is still on sale in the UK as part of a double album deluxe boxed set.
Instead of seeing the article itself, blocked users receive a fake message saying that the page could not be found.
In a statement, the IWF said that the organisation had received a report claiming the page was pornographic through its website, and that after a review the decision was made that the page was ‘potentially illegal’.
‘As with all child abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council,’ it said.
‘The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18… and the specific URL was then added to the list.’
The page itself has been the subject of hot debate among Wikipedia editors, some of whom objected to its use. However, after discussion the website’s administrators determined that the original cover image would remain.
The IWF – a self-regulated body that effectively operates as Britain’s online watchdog – runs the blacklist, largely focusing on images of child abuse.
The censoring system which uses the blacklist, known as Cleanfeed, was first launched by BT in 2004, but is now used by most of Britain’s main internet providers.
However, the system has not been without its critics. In 2005 researchers at the University of Cambridge discovered that Cleanfeed could easily be reverse-engineered to reveal a full list of all the sites containing illegal content – turning it into what lead researcher Richard Clayton called ‘an oracle to efficiently locate illegal websites’.
The proposed implementation of a similar system in Australia, also called Cleanfeed, has caused consternation among civil rights campaigners. They are concerned that the scheme – which plans to blacklist any ‘inappropriate’ content, not just images of child abuse, and will be enforced for all Australian internet users – represents a dangerous limitation on freedom of speech.
Electronic Frontiers Australia, an online campaign group, has previously attacked the ‘creeping scope’ of the plans, calling it ‘unprecedented interference in our communications infrastructure’.
· additional reporting by Wendy Grossman
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