Fighting online child pornography

What’s the best way to fight against child pornography and other illegal forms of child abuse on the Internet? There are two models currently in the news. The British model focuses on the establishment of a democratically self-regulatory body called the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) a community hotline to flag inappropriate content. In Australia, in contrast, the government has just introduced a trial $82 million Internet filtering system designed from above to stop adults downloading child porn.

Both models are currently under attack by Internet activists. On 4th December, IWF put Wikipedia on its blacklist after the user-generated encyclopedia added the naked image of a young girl on the cover of a 1976 album called Virgin Killer by the German heavy metal band Scorpions because it contravened the 1978 Protection of Children Act. Since many large British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) rely on the IWF list to flag illegal online content, this resulted in those ISPs blocking access not only to the article but also stopping UK Wikipedians being able to edit the site. The end result, of course, was uproar within the hardline Wikipedia editorial community. And five days later, on December 9th, IWF reversed its decision and took Wikipedia’s Virgin Killer entry off its list because, it said, the controversy had created unnaturally large public interest in the prepubescent image on the cover of the Scorpion’s cult CD.

Meanwhile, in Australia, many Internet users are up in arms over the 10,000 sites which have been included in the government’s mandatory filter of inappropriate sources of information. Indeed, the trial of this highly undemocratic “cybersafety plan” has proved to be so unpopular that it has led to 85,000 people signing an online petition against its implementation as well as a series of nationwide Facebook organized mass protests against the plan last weekend.

I share many Australians’ discomfort with the authoritarian arbitrariness of their government’s web filtering system. My own preference is for the British IWF model and its consensual self-policing by a responsible community of ISPs, mobile operators, charities, politicians, schools, parents and law enforcers. A few months ago, I had lunch with IWF’s CEO, Peter Robbins, a genial ex-cop, who has brought his successful experience at building community partnerships as the Chief Superintendent of Hackney to online policing against child pornography. As Robbins told me, “the Internet is just another community” and his achievement of working collaboratively with all the major British ISPs, portals, mobile providers and credit card companies has resulted in the number of justified complaints about online child pornography that the IWF hotline receives being reduced from 18% to just 1% and child porn domains being reduced by 10% over the last year.

There’s a third model, of course, as well. That’s the Web 2.0 style self-policing model of websites like Wikipedia which, supposedly, are able to use wisdom-of-the-crowd mechanisms to weed out child pornography. However, Wikipedia’s failure to rid itself of the highly inappropriate cover art of Virgin Killer gives me little confidence in this childishly idealistic model. I certainly have much more faith in Peter Robbins’ self-organizing network of industry insiders and his community hotline than I do in a cabal of anonymous and unaccountable Wikipedia contributors.