Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 08/12/08

Covered Up, or The Sting In The Tail

As I've remarked before, there are two main problems with censorship:

The first of these presents us with a dilemma: do we want a government-appointed group to do it, in which case whilst such groups may be accountable in some general sense, there is always the danger (becoming more and more prevalent today) that decisions will be taken for reasons which are political (using the word in its widest sense) or which pander to mere populism; or do we want some 'voluntary' group to do it, in which case how are they to be held accountable for their decisions?

The second problem is that such bodies - however established - have a strong tendency to overstep their original stated remit, from either political or financial motives.

We now seem to have an example which presents us with the worst of all these scenarios in combination.

Over the past weekend, subscribers to six major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK found that they were unable to edit articles on Wikipedia. Moreover, they found that access to one particular page was either partially or totally blocked.

The page in question relates to the album Virgin Killer by the German heavy metal band The Scorpions, which was released in 1976. Now, this is not another case of loopy mentalfundyists claiming that, if you play the second track on side one backwards it contains a message encouraging people to go out and stab the vicar. No, the issue (such as it is) concerns the original sleeve of the album, which is reproduced on the Wikipedia page in question.

Now, at this point, I'm presented with a certain practical and/or ethical difficulty. You see, in order to talk about this issue, it might be worth your actually seeing what all the fuss is about. However, I do not intend putting a copy of the image here. This is for two main reasons: firstly, my own ISP is one of those which is blocking the image (although not really - see below), and I'm not sure quite what the upshot would be of putting the image on a site which they host; and secondly, I don't want to force anything on you: I like to think I treat the readers of this site as intelligent adults, and you can make up your own minds in the light of what I'm about to say about the image in question.

OK, so what is this dangerous picture? Well, it's of a girl. The girl is about ten or eleven years of age. She is naked. The pose she is in is not, to my mind at least, indicative of a sexual context, and in any case, the most...erm...sensitive part of her anatomy is completely obscured by a 'shattered-glass' effect. In addition to which, the image isn't large enough to show any real detail.

(At this point, I am giving you your opportunity - as a rational human being - to see for yourself and make up your own mind. I accept no responsibility for it - it's always going to be your choice, as it damn well should be. The image is here - the link is to the 'secure' version of Wikipedia, which seems to be unaffected by the censorship - so far).

All right, the image could justifiably be described as being lacking in taste, and its original intention was almost certainly to provoke a response (which it did: a number of countries refused to allow the LP to be released with this cover at the time); but there are wider issues here, and 'taste' (however you wish to define it) is not really one of them.

What seems to have happened is this: someone (we don't know who, and are never likely to know) made a complaint about the image, claiming it constituted 'child sexual abuse'. Well, we're all entitled to our views.

The complaint was made to a group calling itself the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). This is an organisation based in Cambridge, England, whose raison d'être is:

"...to report potentially illegal online content within our remit...[and]...minimise the availability of this content, specifically, child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world..."

So far, so good. The IWF in its current form was set up by a number of (but by no means all) UK ISPs following a threat by the Brown régime that, if the ISPs didn't 'volunteer' to do something about all the filth which is out there on teh interwebs then they (the government) would legislate to enforce censorship at the state level. Unsurprisingly in the light of this threat (and the recognition that any such legislation would inevitably be badly drafted and would be used way beyond its stated remit in the same way that the so-called 'anti-terrorism' laws of the past decade have been), some ISPs (VirginMedia, BT and Tiscali to name but a few) joined on and agreed to abide by its decisions. Other ISPs seem to have had the balls to call the government's bluff.

But who are the IWF? I mean, really?

Well, all you'll get from their website is a list of the organisations which are signed up to it. No individuals are identified, even on its 'Contacts' page. They do say this, however:

"We are an independent self-regulatory body..."

So, they have no standing in law beyond that which might be held by, say, Barnardos or Comic Relief. They are a non-statutory body with no legislative or law-enforcement power, their decisions have no legal force, and no-one is obliged to take any notice of them.

And yet they can block the access of the vast majority of UK internet users to anything which, in their view and their view alone, constitutes 'child sexual abuse content' (a definition of which they don't seem to be able to provide - the attitude seems to be, "It is whatever we say it is")

This is where our first problem (the 'Who' bit) meshes in with the second one. In this case, judging by the press release, the IWF decided - on its own analysis alone - that the image constituted "...a potentially illegal indecent image...". Note two things here: the use of the word 'potentially' (which is like the Private Eye use of the word 'allegedly' - it serves as a get-out clause); and the use of the word 'indecent' - a word which, even in its legal sense, has changed with the years and will no doubt go on doing so.

In the view of the IWF, then, nudity is 'indecent' and any display of nudity - especially of a child - is 'abuse'. This is where it gets a bit silly. The 'nudity = indecency' formula is, of course, an old one - it has its roots in the institutionalised mass self-loathing of the Abrahamic religions and their selected texts - and has been used as the underpinning of blue-nosed laws since time was (the Victorian era saw a particular explosion of them). That doesn't mean to say that they were or are right. I think you would have to be a bit warped to find nudity 'indecent' in and of itself; it's what we all are - our clothing (when not necessitated by climate) is largely a social convention and its presence or absence should carry no 'moral' baggage at all.

(One can push it too far, of course: one of Carla Lane's characters says something like, "The naked human body when still can be beautiful. It's only when it starts moving about that it looks bloody daft!")

And then there's that word 'abuse'. Along with 'reform' and 'modernise', this must be the most abused (sorry) word in the current lexicon of cant. It can be employed to mean anything, and often is used to describe things a long way beyond its proper definition, and in this manner is used largely depending on the ideological position of the person deploying it. It's a subset of what the great Tom Lehrer meant when he stated:

"When correctly viewed, everything is lewd."

It is this deliberate misapplication of the word which has led us into a situation whereby - amongst other things - a television newsreader may be arrested and interrogated by the police because someone in Boots The Chemist objected to a few happy snaps of the newsreader's toddler in the bath. Or where any male over the age of about thirty is made to feel uneasy about talking to any child not his own in public, for fear of being labelled a perv. Or where anyone (especially in that same social category) who has photography for a hobby can be rendered suspect simply by taking a photograph anywhere where there happen to be children (when they're not being done on the grounds of 'national security', of course).

In other words, it's fear and hysteria, whipped up into a heady concoction by tabloid scum and political androids alike for the primary purpose of channelling that sense of general diffuse public unease about 'things in general' which is always present in modern society in a useful (to them) direction (i.e. away from what they themselves may be up to).

I have, of course, seen the usual posts on the usual forums by the usual sorts of suspects who are applauding the IWF and either implying or even stating explicitly that those opposed to its actions are just 'peados' (sic) and support the availability of child pornography. This is the level to which the argument is always reduced; the "All men over the age of thirty should be castrated and have a large 'P' tattooed on their foreheads. After all, it's worth it if it saves one kiddy's life...". Quite frankly, the idea that paedophiles get their kicks by swapping heavy rock album sleeves is a difficult one to take seriously, and trying to imply that that is what happens merely poisons the well of discourse on the subject, which doesn't help the real victims of actual child pornography.

And so, it becomes effectively impossible to have a rational debate on what constitutes 'indecency' and what does not.

If you find nudity 'indecent' in all contexts and circumstances then, yes, I can see that you would have a problem with the image in question. Even if you don't, then you may well still find the image offensive in the context in which it was used - as being tacky or generally exploitative. But 'child abuse'? Really?

It's worth making the point here that the girl in the photograph was asked many years later about it, and she said that she wasn't remotely troubled by it. Can it be abuse when the 'victim' doesn't regard it as such? Or is this another case where - like the people who didn't know they lived in a slum until some sociologist told them that they did - the views of the 'victim' don't matter if it gives the opportunity for the self-important and self-righteous to vent some of their neuroses or subconscious guilt, or to come across as philanthropic? Of course, some people will see offence in anything. They're entitled to, but they are most definitely not entitled to force anyone else to take the same view if they are really of a different opinion.

Anyway, having therefore made up its own mind, the IWF then told the bizzies (sorry, I mean that they alerted their "law enforcement partner agency" - got to get the Bollocksese absolutely right) and added the URL of the 'offending' page to its blacklist. A blacklist which it refuses to allow anyone to see, I might add. Apparently, just viewing the list itself constitutes a criminal offence in the UK (although I assume someone from the IWF can, otherwise...<sigh>...we've come a long way, haven't we?)

This is where it all takes off. Those ISPs which subscribe to the IWF filter their traffic through proxy servers which incorporate the blacklist. This means that subscribers to those ISPs have their net access censored, usually without them being at all aware of the fact - until something like this comes along, that is. Because of the filtering via the proxy servers, the target website (Wikipedia in this case) sees only incoming IP addresses from those proxy servers rather than the originating IP of the ISP or the subscriber.

This matters because, in order to prevent troublemakers from knackering up the entries, Wikipedia has a list of blocked IP addresses from which edits may not be made. However, if the connections made by most users in the UK are coming from a range of only a half a dozen or so IP addresses, then such blocking of vandals becomes impossible. In the light of this, Wikipedia's response to block the proxy servers' IP addresses en masse is a reasonable protetction mechanism. And so, a large proportion of internet users in the UK cannot make anonymous edits to any Wikipedia articles, not just the one at issue.

So we have an unidentified individual, complaining to an unaccountable private organisation, who then make their decision without consultation with anything other than a government wish-list, who then in turn impose that decision upon the companies who are subscribed to it, who are then somehow obliged to submit to that decision, however arguable, and this leads to a major international website being rendered effectively out-of-bounds to the customers of those companies. And there seems to be nothing - other than moving to one of the ISPs which is not signed up to the IWF - we can do about it.

It is, of course, a well-established fact that the Brown régime and other governments of nominally 'free' countries want to take effective control of the internet. We can't have people being able to communicate with each other without the mediation of 'responsible' people such as politicians, journalists and ideologically-motivated busybodies, can we now? The Australian government (of a very similar ideological stamp to its London counterpart) is even now trying to implement a system of State-controlled censorship of the internet (on not dissimilar lines to the infamous Great Firewall Of China), a policy supported by the fundy bigot of a minister who's in charge of it, but opposed by just about anyone who knows anything about the way these things work (or don't).

That's why it's an unalloyed pleasure when organisations - be they integral parts of the State or mere proxies for it - get it so exactly wrong. Because got it wrong they most certainly have, and in two ways. Firstly, they seemed to have assumed that people would simply accept the knowledge that any organisation was censoring their access. This is based on the 'people-as-sheep' philosophy which seems to inform everything done by those in brief authority over us nowadays. However, this stance ignores the wonderful, insurmountable cussedness of people in general. This is what censors always face: the determination of people to make up their own minds. This is why Mary Whitehouse (and her successors in the also-very-formal-sounding-but utterly-nutty-and-unofficial 'MediaWatch') have been such abject failures, and have in fact had the opposite effect to that which they intended. By drawing attention to what they want us not to be able to see, hear, read, say and think, they merely ensure that whatever it is gets even more attention and increases its attraction to those who would not have known about it had these blathering idiots kept their mouths shut in the first place.

(In the age of the internet, this has become known as the 'Streisand Effect').

The second way in which they have kneed themselves in the groin is that censoring access to one source of the information does not remove that information, and does not prevent access to it somewhere else. In this instance, there are enough copies of the image all over the internet (including, for example, the websites of companies which sell the album) that finding it is the easiest thing in the world. In fact, to take the whole thing to a whole new level of ludicrousness, if you do a Google Image search with the phrase "virgin killer", you will immediately see nine copies of the image even with Strict SafeSearch switched on!

Besides which, have you ever seen the cover of the 1970 LP by the 'supergroup' Blind Faith? I mean, that is far more difficult an image: the girl's got tits for one thing. And what is that she's holding?

Google for it if you like. I won't stop you, because it's none of my business.

There are other, more technical, ways around the censorship. The Wikipedia links in this article demonstrate one way; there are others - many others.

Perhaps we should be glad that those who would make decisions on our behalf as to what we may be 'permitted' to see, hear, etc. without our consent are so inept at it and are so lacking in the knowledge required to do it effectively, but we should still not be complacent about the ways in which those in power seek to remove ever-increasing amounts of our self-determination.

Update: An Australian man has lost his appeal against child pornography charges for possessing images of the Simpsons characters having sex. Full story here.

Fuck me to heaven in a bath of champagne! Will no-one rid us of these legislating loonies?

Animation of a 'smiley' banging his head against a wall

Update Update (09/12/08): It seems that the IWF - apparently for the first time in its twelve-year history, has backed down. Good on them (no, seriously), and possibly they'll be a little less prone to jumping in with their size nines in future. We should still keep a close watch on the buggers, though.