Censorship with the best of intentions

Fri, Dec 12, 2008, 00:00

WIRED:It can be difficult if not downright clumsy to monitor the content of a user-edited website, wites Danny O'Brien

THE USER-edited web encyclopedia Wikipedia is accustomed to some enthusiastic editors, but when its administrators started seeing thousands of edits (and hundreds of thousands of web views) from just a handful of British computers, they knew something was wrong.

As they unravelled the truth, a hitherto unspoken side of Britain's internet became apparent, as well as its effect on the internet beyond that country's borders.

Wikipedia, and the internet as a whole, was being censored by the UK's top internet service providers (ISPs) - with the best of intentions, but with the same tools as those used by Chinese government to enforce the "Great Firewall of China".

Censorship seems an alien idea to the freewheeling free-speech zone of the internet - and so it is.

It's almost impossible to filter or block content online, but that doesn't mean people don't like to try. The British ISPs who messed with Wikipedia were doing their best to comply with British law and the strong hints of the government.

There is no law explicitly censoring the internet in Britain, but there is internet content that could land you - or ISPs - in jail just for viewing or distributing it. Primarily, that unlawful content is child pornography.

While not regulating the internet, the British government has made it clear to ISPs that they see them as responsible for ensuring such content is not viewable by British consumers.

Of course, ISPs do not have much real control over what their users get up to online - even if they would like to.

Information can be passed around the internet in encrypted ways that no one can break, government or techie. Even the data that ISPs can snoop into is so varied that checking whether it is pictures of abuse is as impossible as identifying it as spam or dodgy mp3s. But when asked by the government to fight child pornography, ISPs do what we'd all do: something.

Anything.

What ISPs do in Britain is keep a blacklist of web addresses. The blacklist is derived from complaints from the public - someone reporting something as child pornography to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a non-profit helpline set up for that purpose.

The website is checked (in itself a risky proposition, as it is unclear whether downloading child pornography is a criminal act even for the purpose of analysis).

If the IWF deems it unlawful, ISPs block the web address.

This poses two problems - both of which arose in the Wikipedia case.

The first is technical: how do you practically censor a web address? The second is political: what happens when you block something that most people would not view as child pornography?

The answer to the first is "clumsily". British ISPs cannot check every web address being visited by their users, so they try to fence off "possible" bad web visits from permitted websites.

In the case of Wikipedia, one address in the millions of Wikipedia pages had been blacklisted, but that meant all other Wikipedia pages were "possible" bad addresses.

The end result, to Wikipedia's computers, was that much of its British traffic appeared to come, not from the real visitors, but from the censoring machines, which were diverting the Wikipedia traffic for more careful examination.

That wasn't expected by Wikipedia - or the censorware, which reportedly had problems dealing with such a high load.

The answer to the second, political, question also came as a surprise. The banned image was an album cover (from the band Skorpion) of a naked child that was nonetheless published in many countries and was available on Amazon.

On hearing of the censorship, many people naturally searched for the image online - where it is as widely available as the album.

It turned out to be, as eventually admitted by the IWF, counterproductive to attempt to block it any longer since it was available in so many other forms and the censorship was merely drawing attention to it. The block was removed.

The truth is that, while the IWF's work in collecting evidence of child abuse online is valuable, its role as internet censor is technically ineffective and fraught with political and technological risks.

Those seeking child pornography can find it without touching the blocks placed by ISPs, while others who might wish to censor more widely will be constantly tempted to use the power of the blacklist against other targets. The secrecy of the blacklist and its obfuscated processes add to that risk.

In some ways, we're lucky that the targeting of such a large site as Wikipedia has indicated the downsides of the British system.

The danger is that such publicity gives politicians elsewhere the wrong idea.

They may know about the British system because it broke the internet for Wikipedia and its millions of users, but now that they know, they'll try to impose it elsewhere. When it comes to fighting child abuse, we all want to do something - anything - even if it doesn't work.