Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wikipedia, Great Britain and Censorship

ISPs in Great Britain are censoring Wikipedia. From the Wikinews article:

Wikinews has learned that at least six of the United Kingdom's main Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have implemented monitoring and filtering mechanisms that are causing major problems for UK contributors on websites operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, amongst up to 1200 other websites. The filters appear to be applied because Wikimedia sites are hosting a Scorpions album cover which some call child pornography. The Scorpions are a German rock band who have used several controversial album covers and are perhaps best known for their song, "Rock You Like a Hurricane".
The evil wiki witch Durova already has an entry on this topic which I recommend reading. My own analysis follows.

While there has already been a large amount of reaction against this perceived censorship accompanied by cries that of course this image is not child porn, I can see how a reasonable individual might consider the image to be over the line. The image in question consists of a nude girl of about 11 years of age with an apparent lens crack over her genitalia. Moreover, the pose the girl is in is a pose which would arguably be sexual if that pose were done by an adult even if she were fully clothed. However, it is clear that the image is legal in the United States and the State of Florida where the Wikipedia servers reside.

The censorship has been done in a very hamfisted fashion. Among other consequences it forces the majority of people accessing Wikipedia in Great Britain to do so only through a handful of IP addresses. This is making it difficult for Wikipedia admins to deal with vandalism from anywhere in Great Britain and is making it difficult for people in Britain to edit Wikipedia in general.

There are two issues which I find particularly disturbing.

First, the ISPs made the decision after the Internet Watch Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to stoping child pornography on the internet, decided that the image was close enough to child porn to be included in their list. There's thus nothing even resembling an appeal process or any form of transparency about these decisions. Indeed, even now the IWF has not clarified whether any other pages on Wikipedia are being similarly censored.

Second, many of the people in Great Britain who have attempted to access the page have received a 404 error rather than be told that the content is being censored. If this occurs in less prominent cases people might not even realize there is censorship occurring and simply assume that the server in question is down or has some other problem. This is thus a subtle form of censorship which can be hard to detect.

Update: David Gerard appeared on the Today show to talk about this. He has a transcript of that appearance as well as his thoughts on the matter.


Durova said...

Is it possible to determine what other websites have been censored in this manner?

Joshua said...

Not in any obvious way. Neither the ISPs in question nor the IWF are willing to release what pages they are censoring. It might be possible for someone who ran a website to tell if they were being censored if they noticed an absence of traffic from some ISPs. But unless one was a large website like Wikipedia one might not even notice that. Furthermore, as it has been explained to me (I'm not an expert on this by any means) it may very well be that some of these requests look identical to the normal requests that come through and then the ISPs just drop the data. If that's the case it is would be close to impossible to tell.

In summary at minimum it is impossible to tell in any systematic fashion what pages or websites have been censored. Even detecting it on specific pages or sites might be difficult.

Durova said...

That's scary.

Ioan said...

At least the Great Firewall of China is government run, so one would assume that a change in government (as unlikely as that may be) might bring about a change in policy. Having an NGO essentially dictate policy for an entire country even when it comes to banning access to one page on one website makes me wonder whether this is happening in the United States as well. After all, as you mentioned, the only reason this got any press is because Wikipedia made a big deal about it, not because the ISPs or the NGO are being particularly open about this operation.


Joshua said...

Final update: It looks like the IWF is backing down:

Joshua said...

Also Teo another major difference between this and China is that many people in China know that their content is censored. I must wonder what fraction of Great Britain is aware that they are being censored.

tom hanks said...

the only thing that the government should censor is dan brown!!

Erica said...

Josh, you posted this when I was traveling in December, so I missed it. A few comments.

First, although most Chinese people know that internet content is censored (and often approve of some level of censorship), censored pages also yield a 404 error. It's pretty clear when you Google the Dalai Lama, receive a 404 error, and then can't access Google for 5 minutes that there's censorship going on, but other times it's not so clear.

It also might be worth pointing out the difference between three popular search engines in China: Baidu,, and A search on Baidu (which occupies over 70% of the search engine market share in China) will only return approved hits and users are provided no notification that relevant, but censored, web pages are not being shown. In China, using to search will yield all hits, but the user is unable to access some of them. A search on will only yield approved hits, but at the very bottom of the search page (not at the top, let me emphasize) there is a small notice in Chinese that "In accordance with the local Government's regulations and laws, some results are not shown."