Everyone loves a bit of self-regulation. But what happens when world-views collide?
Today it has emerged that a ruling by Internet Watch Foundation — a charity-status QUANGO established to help self-regulate internet content in the UK — has led a number of UK ISPs to block access to a (community-regulated) Wikipedia page for heavy metal band Scorpions.
Why? Because the entry includes an image of an album cover which features a naked child. Internet providers began to block access to the page after the IWF warned them the picture may be illegal under UK law. An IWF spokeswoman said a reader had brought the image to the foundation’s attention last week and it had contacted the police before adding the page to their content blacklist.
The album cover itself is a pretty nasty piece of 70s schlock art but it is widely viewable elsewhere on the Internet.
Censorship is a big issue for the Wikipedia community, and policy is hotly debated. In July 2008, Wikipedia community editors then made a joint decision not to remove the Scorpions cover art from the site. According to the discussion page from that time, “Prior discussion has determined by broad consensus that the Virgin Killer cover will not be removed.” Indeed, the current Wikipedia page for Scorpions explains that in the United States (where the websites of the Wikimedia Foundation are hosted), the image is not considered obscene under the criteria of the Miller test, which requires that an obscene work lack “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” (as album art is used to “brand” the album, it is considered to be artistic).
On the other side of the fence, the IWF is a UK-based charity, funded by ISPs and others, and endorsed by the UK Government. It was established in the mid-90s to self-regulate around the issue of USENET porn. Since then the IWF’s remit has expanded to include identification of racist and criminally obscene content, although its focus still seems to be on images of the abuse of children. Unlike Wikipedia, their process and website offers for no community discussion. There is apparantly no way to object to or appeal against their classification.
To us, the message of this story is plain. The kinds of ground-up regulation and consensual decision-making we value on-line only exist — if they exist at all — at the discretion of the State and its possibly-well-meaning but generally opaque proxies. If you want a voice, get out and shout. Yes, you.