net.wars: Block party

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 March 2011

When last seen in net.wars, the Internet Watch Foundation was going through the most embarrassing moment of its relatively short life: the time it blocked a Wikipedia page. It survived, of course, and on Tuesday this week it handed out copies of its latest annual report (PDF) and its strategic plan for the years 2011 to 2014 (PDF) in the Strangers Dining Room at the House of Commons.

Wendy M Grossman

The event was, more or less, the IWF's birthday party: in August it will be 15 years since the suspicious, even hostile first presentation, in 1996, of the first outline of the IWF. It was an uneasy compromise between an industry accused of facilitating child abuse, law enforcement threatening technically inept action, and politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something, all heightened by some of the worst mainstream media reporting I've ever seen.

Suspicious or not, the IWF has achieved traction. It has kept government out of the direct censorship business and politicians and law enforcement reasonably satisfied. Without – as was pointed out – cost to the taxpayer, since the IWF is funded from a mix of grants, donations, and ISPs' subscription fees.

And to be fair, it has been arguably successful at doing what it set out to do, which is to disrupt the online distribution of illegal pornographic images of children within the UK. The IWF has reported for some years now that the percentage of such images hosted within the UK is near zero. On Tuesday, it said the time it takes to get foreign-hosted content taken down has halved. Its forward plan includes more of the same, plus pushing more into international work by promoting the use its URL list abroad and developing partnerships.

Over at The Register Jane Fae Ozniek has done a good job of tallying up the numbers the IWF reported, and also of following up on remarks made by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Home Office Minister James Brokenshire that suggested the IWF or its methods might be expanded to cover other categories of material. So I won't rehash either topic here.

Instead, what struck me is the IWF's report that a significant percentage of its work now concerns sexual abuse images and videos that are commercially distributed. This news offered a brief glance into a shadowy world that is illegal for any of us to study since under UK law (and the laws of many other countries) it's illegal to access such material. If this is a correct assessment, it certainly follows the same pattern as the world of malware writing, which has progressed from the giggling, maladjusted teenager writing a bit of disruptive code in his bedroom to a highly organized, criminal, upside-down image of the commercial software world (complete, I'm told by experts from companies like Symantec and Sophos, with product trials, customer support, and update patches). Similarly, our, or at least my, image was always of like-minded amateurs exchanging copies of the things they managed to pick up rather like twisted stamp collectors.

The IWF report says it has identified 715 such commercial sources, 321 of which were active in 2010. At least 47.7 percent of the commercially branded material is produced by the top ten, and the most prolific of these brands used 862 URLs. The IWF has attempted to analyze these brands, and believes that they are operated in clusters by criminals. To quote the report:

Each of the webpages or websites is a gateway to hundreds or even thousands of individual images or videos of children being sexually abused, supported by layers of payment mechanisms, content sores, membership systems, and advertising frames. Payment systems may include pre-pay cards, credit cards, "virtual money" or e-payment systems, and may be carried out across secure webpages, text, or email.

This is not what people predicted when they warned at the original meeting that blocking access to content would drive it underground into locations that were harder to police. I don't recall anyone saying: it will be like Prohibition and create a new Mafia. How big a problem this is and how it relates to events like yesterday's shutdown of boylovers.net remains to be seen. But there's logic to it: anything that's scarce attracts a high price and anything high-priced and illegal attracts dedicated criminals. So we have to ask: would our children be safer if the IWF were less successful?

The IWF will, I think always be a compromise. Civil libertarians will always be rightly suspicious of any organization that has the authority and power to shut down access to content, online or off. Still, the IWF's ten-person board now includes, alongside the representatives of ISPs, top content sites, and academics, a consumer representative, and seems to be less dominated by repressive law enforcement interests. There's an independent audit in the offing, and while the IWF publishes no details of its block list for researchers to examine, it advocates transparency in the form of a splash screen that tells users a site that is blocked and why. They learned, the IWF's departing head, Peter Robbins, said in conversation, a lot from the Wikipedia incident.

My summary: the organization will know it has its balance exactly right when everyone on all sides has something to complain about.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).