Wikipaedia beats Internet Watch Foundation on own goals

The Internet Watch Foundation recently placed Wikipedia on its blacklist after a complaint that an article was carrying an image that was illegal under UK law. It rescinded the ban after a wave of complaints from the Internet community. The clash was sad but inevitable. The result is almost certainly a pyrrhic victory.


The Wikipaedia discussion and the original IWF statement convey the original positions of both sides in the debate better than any commentator could. The IWF comment on the takedown and criticism of that retreat should also be read.


The “trigger” related to an article on a German heavy-metal band Scorpions illustrated by a cover said by one commentator to be “as in bad taste as the band” and very similar to the cover of a recent programme for a well-known British art gallery. Both were likely to arouse thoughts of under-age sex: but the later was based on painting not a photograph.

The Wikipaedia discussion was all about how to get round censorship and how this was the thin end of a very thick wedge. But there was another wedge, going in the opposite direction. Hence the importance of current discussions about Internet Governance.


Unfortunately debate within the “traditional” Internet Community appears stuck in a 20th Century time warp. The discussions at the Interenet Governance Forum in Hyderabad on the need to place Internet Governance under open and democratic control, as opposed to a cartel of US lawyers and technocrats or an international committee of state censors, were long overdue. But the absence of so many of the US players after the attacks at Mumbai does not bode well for moving towards constructive bridge-building.


I looked up my script for to a meeting of the “Freedom Forum” in London, shortly before  9/11. The early part of the meeting was taken up with well known former spooks and investigative journalists talking about censorship of the maintsream media. I was tasked to help introduce the discussion of  “censorship on the net”: then a taboo subject.


I concluded as follows:


The issue is not whether the Internet will be controlled or not .


Those conducting legitimate business over the net are already subject to the attention of regulators around the world from the Advertising Standards  Agency in the UK to the Fair Trade Commission in California. There appears to be an almost total consensus, outside the Internet community itself, that same laws should be applied on-line as off-line. But how will these work in a cross-border environment?


There is no political or industry consensus yet in sight as to who will run the cross-border disputes resolutions and the international track and trace activities necessary to restore confidence in the public Internet as a place for the innocent to learn or to shop.


– Will the handful of players, CISCO, EDS, IBM, MCI-Worldcom, Microsoft et al, who provide the core structures of the commercial Internet, from server farms and peering centres through pipes to access software, promote secure walled gardens governed by contract law for the moral majority?


· Will the forensic accounting arm of Price-Anderson-Young and the investigations arm of Control Risks be paid by Banks and Telcos to track, trace and e-liminate those who prey on them or on their customers?


· Will networks of industry self-regulators working across frontiers be able to provide the credibility and flexibility of response and redress that governments cannot?


· Will those government agencies which have the necessary skills and resources make the transition to democratically accountable law enforcement on a global basis?


· Will the Internet polarise between regulated walled gardens connected by secure highways and a libertarian cyberjungle, home to predators and free-thinkers alike?


All these are likely to happen as solutions evolve over time.


The bigger question is how that evolution is monitored and how any short term abuses are controlled in a democratic society. That in turn depends on whether voters are more concerned over abuse by Criminals, by Businesses or by Government Agencies and their employees. It also depends on how consultation and choice are conducted in societies where those most at risk are those least able to use the security and filtering facilities currently on offer and on-line debate is dominated by those with time on their hands.


How does one stage a realistic debate between those who believe in the Internet as it was four years ago, those who have yet to acquire the confidence to do more than dabble and those who are changing the underlying infrastructure, let alone their own business models, during the course of the debate? “


So what, if anything, has changed over past eight years?


The answer is that one in five of the population of the world is now on-line and the Intent is multi-cultural as well as multi-lingual. China has more Internet users than America. But most of the scams are still run out of the United, Hence the collapse in on-line fraud, not just spam, when McColo was taken off air. Unfortunately the failure of the major service providers and law enforcement agencies to work together and capitalise on success means the fraudsters are back in time for Christmas.


I have just been reading “Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency

: the recommendations of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies for President Obama. I remain a determined optimist but sometimes it requires much determination to remain optimistic. There is an old witches warning: “Be careful what you wish for.. You may get it”.


When I joined ISOC in 1995 the luminaries wished for a global, socially inclusive Internet and to set the governance standards for that on-line world. Now, as in the Wikipaedia debate, they appear to be busy running away from the consequences. Hopefully the UK Internet Governance Forum is about to pick up the baton and show how it can and should be done.


Please let me know, c/o EURIM, if you would like to help.