Blocking Content in the UK. Censorship or Populace Protection?

by David Lane

A startling development is being reported by the BBC in the UK. It seems that the Internet Watch Foundation which looks like a quasi governmental organization, has taken offense with an album cover on Wikipedia and is “blocking” access to it. IWF claims it is an issue of child pornography, Wikipedia is calling it censorship.

This is a controversial issue and hardly one that is clear cut. First, let us look at the facts, such as they are.

The IWF manages a filter list that British ISPs utilize voluntarily (I think – it is hard to get a handle on it) that block access to “illegal” content. In this case, the IWF says that this album cover and associated text is “potentially illegal child sexual abuse image.”

The album is a 30 year old recording by the Scorpions called “Virgin Killer.” The album, released before the 1978 Protection of Children Act has already been modified once because the band was notified it might violate laws in some countries.

Wikipedia is upset because this is the first case where content on its site has been blocked in the UK and it feels it is being unfairly targeted because the album cover was still available as part of the band's box set and could be viewed on retail websites and When [Wikipedia] asked the Internet Watch Foundation why they blocked Wikipedia and not Amazon, apparently the decision was 'pragmatic', which we think means that Amazon had money and would sue them, whereas we're an educational charity.

I think Wikipedia has a case.

Let me state unequivocally that I am opposed to child pornography. There is no call for it. But we are in a sticky place with this cover. Is it art? Is it pornography? Is it legal? I am going to stay away from a discussion of the legal issues. That is way above my pay grade, and I expect that before this is done, the legal issues will have to be wrangled with. But I do need to address a couple of other issues, censorship of the 'Net being only one of them.

As the representative from Wikipedia pointed out, this is a case of targeted blocking. As of the report, Amazon was not being blocked. Dozens of other questionable album covers were not being targeted, and he cited: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Eric Clapton’s Blind Faith, and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy as examples of covers that the IWF has not blocked.

The IWF, in its defense, said that it only acts on tips from the public and has to follow up each one. When questioned by the interviewer about why Amazon was not being targeted or why these other covers were not included, Ms. Robertson said that the IWF would have to review each case and would take up the issue each in turn.

Which begs the question. Either the people working at the IWF are clearly biased in what they consider to be pornography or they really are targeting those that cannot afford to defend themselves. To me this is another case of Big Brother stomping around and trying to dictate what I see and do not see.

For the record, I do not see anything particularly offensive about the cover. I do not know that I see anything particularly redeeming about it either. From the standpoint of blatant sexuality, I can cite a dozen different albums that are more pornographic. What disturbs me most however is that the IWF is starting to look a lot like the Moral Majority or the PMRC, trying to tell me what I can and cannot look at. And what is truly sad, is that we are talking about a record cover that is thirty years old, and has sold thousands of copies to date.

OK, fire away. I have my Nomex® on.

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