Monday, December 8, 2008

Wikipedia censorship makes technical workaround a must

If you're British and having a bit of trouble accessing Wikipedia today, you can thank the censors for your research roadblocks. The Internet Watch Foundation, a regulatory organization that calls itself "an independent self-regulatory body, funded by the EU and the wider online industry," added a Wikipedia page to its almost universally used (in the UK) "notice and take-down" service, essentially putting the page on the forbidden list for British Internet users. That's all the more reason to get acquainted with technologies specifically designed to defeat censorship.

The forbidden Wikipedia article is devoted to the Virgin Killer album by the German heavy metal band, The Scorpions. The naked prepubescent girl on the cover was controversial in 1976, when the album was originally released, and sufficiently more so now that an image of the cover is enough to get an entire country cut off from access to an encyclopedia article.

According to the IWF:

A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109). The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment. The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.

In its response, the Wikimedia Foundation said that this is the first time, as far as its members know, that Wikipedia has been censored in the UK. The foundation added that the IWF move had greater ramifications than simply blocking access to one article.

[I]n the case of Wikipedia, the block has had the additional -and extremely damaging- side effect of disenfranchising UK-based Wikipedia editors, by making it impossible for them to edit the encyclopedia.

The censorship shut down roughly one-quarter of all edits to the English-language Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation further points out that the Virgin Killer cover has never been found to violate child pornography laws, and that it is widely available on the Internet -- including on popular Incidentally, the cover's presence on Amazon was reported to the FBI earlier this year by the socially conservative publication, WorldNetDaily -- with no consequences.

Interestingly, another Wikipedia article offers workaround information for Britons interested in defeating the IWF block. The entry on Internet censorship advises surfers attempting to evade censorship to use proxy servers, or software like Psiphon and Tor. One open-source solution from Germany, Java Anon Proxy or JonDonym, is available here. Psiphon, specifically developed to bypass censorship efforts, is found here.

A recent paper by Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute concludes, "Absent the intimidation of a totalitarian state, the technically savvy and the determined are easily able to circumvent Internet filters, and content is increasingly being accessed using peer-to-peer systems that are even more difficult to police. It is mainstream Internet users whose access to information will be most affected by filtering systems."

Moves like the blocking of Wikipedia by the IWF are annoying and upsetting in the short term. But they'll certainly help to spur the development and distribution of technologies that make such censorship increasingly easy to defeat.


Anonymous claude said...

I am a computer technician and i usually recommend OperaTor for purposes like this. There is nothing for the user to configure and its completely free.

"OperaTor is a portable software bundle which allows you to browse the web anonymously. It combines the power of the Opera Browser, Tor and Polipo."

It works great.

December 9, 2008 6:32 AM  
Blogger John Holton said...

Sounds like the brouhaha over Blind Faith's album, featuring a girl almost as young.

And they call us fascists...

December 9, 2008 8:56 AM  

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