When it is published on the naughty evil t’internets of course.
As this is a pretty sensitive subject that evokes some extremely opposing views and is subjective we’ll just get a couple of things out of the way first.
We’re looking at the nature of censorship in the United Kingdom, in particular that related to the internet and who gets to choose what is considered to be acceptable in a ‘mature’ I use the word advisably here, society.
Last night I picked up on a little story that comes courtesy of the venerable El Reg. Generally required reading for all those of a techie persuasion. This article to be precise. That UK ISP’s (mine included) were blocking access to a Wikipedia page about The Scorpions Virgin Killer album that displayed a picture of the original album cover.
They had done this because it had been determined that the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) considered it to be a picture of child abuse that contravenes the law here on our little island. How this works for those of a non-techie nature is that the IWF effectively have a list of dodgy sites/pages that depict either in an international context pictures and videos of child abuse or pornography and in addition to this UK hosted sites that contain various other material such as incitement to racial hatred etc that they give to the ISP’s who then block their customers from viewing.
The ISP’s do this by the method of redirecting to a proxy server that appears to be the site that the user typed in (you still see the normal URL etc) but instead of delivering the content that should be there, it returns a box standard 404 error page.
This has been going on for a while during which we’ve been nicely and smuggly sitting back criticising the Chinese for their Great Firewall and the Aussies for there potty attempts to net-nanny the entire internet for their citizens but hey, it would never happen here of course.
I won’t link to it although the El Reg article does, but despite this practice having gone on for a while and to be fair to the IWF they have up until now appeared to have done a good job, this issue has obviously kicked off because the image in question is on a site that is generally trusted. Whatever criticisms that people may have of Wikipedia and it’s certainly not perfect, it’s not a host of images relating to child abuse.
Before we get into it, you may wish to have a trundle over to Unity at the MoT who covered the subject earlier today to pick up some interesting elements to the story and in particular the North American aspect.
Unity raises an important issue regarding the image that he displays on his website as to whether it is child porn. Or does the fact that it is painted (in the photo realist method), as opposed something done with a lense make any difference?
I have to admit that I had a similar line of thinking to Unity on this last night when the story first came out. Surely there are plenty of pictures hanging in galleries across the land that depict naked kiddies? However this distinction as to whether there is a difference between an image no matter how realistic if it is produced via paint and canvass or through a lens, be it celluloid, 35mm or digital is an interesting one.
This made me wonder if I could think of any readily available images of naked children, preferably fairly well known that are commonly displayed or have been at least some time in the last 32 years since the release of the Virgin Killer album to try and draw parallels with.
Sticking to the rock (technically I know it’s grunge) band album cover theme, I give you Nevermind by Nirvana released in 1991.
Please note that this is a scaled down image taken from Wikipedia and reproduced under the same United States fair usage policy.
Unlike the image on the Virgin Killer album our subject is male, distinctly younger being a baby but equally where the album cover from Virgin Killer utilises a cracked glass effect to mask genitalia, in the case of the Nirvana album our baby’s ‘little friend’ is in full view and no attempt is made to disguise it.
Is this a case of child abuse or pornography? It’s a good question. Or does the subject matters age or sex make a difference? If it is a picture depicting abuse then does it matter whether this image is freely available to view on the internet or the fact that it probably adorns the shelves of most record shops in the country make it OK? If the latter, and I’m going to make an effort to check next time I’m in the vicinity of one, whether the Virgin Killer album with it’s original album cover is also available as apparently the special edition version is. If this is an image of child abuse/pornography then I’m pretty sure a lot of my friends of a similar musical tastes are in trouble because they possess it. (Note, I never actually got round to buying it as I was too poor at the time).
It could be the case that a baby doesn’t quite qualify and perhaps there is a gender issue so for our next delectation I give you not only a naked girl, but unlike the Virgin Killer album, here we are talking full frontal nudity and she’s circa nine years old.
Again taken from Wikipedia and displayed under the same license.
Quite possibly the most famous picture from the 20th century, that taken of Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she runs away from her village after a napalm attack by US forces during the Vietnam War taken by Nick Ut.
As an image there can be few people who have not at some point come across it.
For many it summed up the sheer horror of a war and in the true sense of a picture being able to speak a thousand words it is iconic.
It has been widely distributed across all forms of media, written, televisual and the internet. As far as I’m aware there have never been any calls to censor it or cover up genitalia and it even won a Pulitzer Prize.
So where does this leave us? What is the defining point as to whether an image is considered child abuse/pornography and most importantly who actually gets to decide.
Cards on the table time here. I don’t have a problem with censorship. I’m not a full on everything should be available liberal but I’m fairly easy going. I don’t subscribe to the notion that violent computer games turn kids into gangsters and thugs and that if you have a predilection towards finding children sexually arousing then viewing an image of a naked girl is not going encourage people because if they’re already at that sick level through whatever means that brought them to it, be it being abused themselves as children or whatever then they’re already there. We’re back to the whole correlation doesn’t equal causality debate but that can wait for another time.
So what do the IWF have to say?
The IWF have released a statement regarding the issue which goes like this:
IWF is the UKâ€™s internet â€˜Hotlineâ€™ for the public and IT professionals to report potentially illegal online content within our remit. We work in partnership with the online industry, law enforcement, government, the education sector, charities, international partners and the public to minimise the availability of this content, specifically, child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK. We are an independent self-regulatory body, funded by the EU and the wider online industry, including internet service providers, mobile operators and manufacturers, content service providers, filtering companies, search providers, trade associations and the financial sector as well as other organisations that support us for corporate social responsibility reasons.We help internet service providers and hosting companies to combat abuse of their networks through our national â€˜notice and take-downâ€™ service which alerts them to potentially illegal content within our remit on their systems and we provide unique data to law enforcement partners in the UK and abroad to assist investigations into the distributers of potentially illegal online content. As sexually abusive images of children are primarily hosted abroad, we facilitate the industry-led initiative to protect users from inadvertent exposure to this content by blocking access to it through our provision of a dynamic list of child sexual abuse URLs.A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWFâ€™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.
For anyone used to reading between the lines, there’s a lot of if’s, maybe’s, possibly’s knocking around to make one think that the IWF are trying to leave themselves a get out option if this all goes horribly pear-shaped for them.
The irony is that they claim that they wished to remove the image so that people wouldn’t inadvertently come across the image and had they not blocked the page then the odds are that almost nobody probably would have come across what amounts to an early work of dubious quality by a band who are only really famous for one song, at least in the UK anyway.
In contrast, now thousands of people have probably attempted to view the page to see what all the fuss was about and access to the image for those not technically capable of circumnavigating the proxy redirection at the ISP level which truly isn’t hard, the image is nothing more than a Google Images search and the name of the album away which leads us onto the question of why just this one page?
Aside from the ease with which the image is available via a search engine, it is also available on some other fairly obvious and reputable sites. HMV carry it although admittedly their’s is not the full colour version but a silhouetted outline (is there a difference? does that make it ok?) and Amazon.com carry the full image when hunting out the album at their site. So why have these pages not been blocked? Will they be blocked? Is it even feasible to block an image that is so widely distributed and even if it were because it’s not, then why not a slightly more fool-proof method than one that it is easy to get past?
Personally I think at best the image is crap for an album cover and that’s about it. However the image aside there is the question about the strategy of blocking the entire page and the textual information regarding the album itself. Especially given the information contained there about the controversy of the image when the album was first released and indeed the later regret by the former lead guitarist Uli Jon Roth about it’s use. In that context it’s publication on Wikipedia amounts to nothing more than historical reference which seems very fair to me.
The final question that remains is that if a non-governmental organisation, outside of the judiciary or proper legal system has decreed that an image contravenes the law then where does this leave people who are currently in possession of it. Will people have to hunt through their old vinyls and start improvised bonfires as something they may have purchased 32 years ago is now considered to be illegal? Will we have to have a dodgy album cover amnesty so that people can drop copies off at police stations?
All seems a bit daft to me.