Monday, December 08, 2008

Everything I Like Is Either Illegal, Immoral Or Fattening.

Is access to the Internet censored in Britain? Most of us would like to think that it is not, unlike the situation in many other countries around the world where various sites cannot be viewed, usually due to content (whether that is for political, cultural, ethical or other reasons). In the UK one can, in theory at least, look at any site you want to which originates from anywhere in the world as long as it isn't breaking the law of this country. Like this one, for instance. This blogger knows that he is a bit of an opinionated and contrary bugger at times, but he has never said anything on From The North which is - as far as Keith Telly Topping is am aware - remotely illegal. So, you can all read of his thoughts in complete freedom without any chance of being prosecuted. You can, therefore, either agree or disagree with them as is your choice. It's a free country, that's the way it works. And, even if by some chance you should stumble across a website that does contain some illegal content - whether that's by accident or design - most authorities are still highly unlikely to bang you up in The Pokey for it. Because, well, it's a big 'net, there's a lot of people using it and you simply can't have eyes everywhere. This blogger thinks most of us who use the 'net understand the law in this regard and we act accordingly. We're British after all, we might complain about stuff, but we're mostly law-abiding people and we try to do what's right even if we don't, always, succeed.

But customers of several big Internet service providers in the UK are now finding that they cannot access one particular page of a website. It's not just any old website, either - it's a page on Wikipedia the widely used 'encyclopedia of everything' which, I reckon, most Internet users will have accessed at some stage in their browsing. Since its creation in 2001 Wiki has grown rapidly into one of (if not the) largest reference websites attracting, according to the site itself, six hundred and eighty four million visitors yearly. The page that cannot be viewed, if you're curious, is about a relatively obscure (and, frankly, bloody awful) 1970s German heavy metal band, Scorpions. It has been blocked because it includes an image of a controversial cover of one of their LPs, Virgin Killer, which depicts a naked young girl. Even when it came out, back in 1976, the cover was viewed by many as distasteful and was withdrawn in a number of countries - although, significantly, not this blogger believes in the UK, at least initially. Certainly, Keith Telly Topping can remember going to teenage parties in the late 1970s and seeing copies of the LP in its original cover (though the 2007 CD release does feature an alternative). This blogger does not like the cover himself - either conceptually or as a piece pure photography. I find it, like the band themselves, vuglar and rather provocative and attention-seeking just for the sake of it so this blogger has got no intention of reposting the image here. But, if you're interested in what all the fuss is about it can be viewed at the offending Wikipedia page here: Except that, for many of you, it can't be viewed there. (Although Keith Telly Topping imagines that if you do a Google-search with the words 'Scorpions', 'Virgin Killer' and 'original cover' you'll probably find it somewhere.)
The Internet Watch Foundation - which is 'Britain's leading online child abuse watchdog,' apparently - has put that particular page on its 'banned list.' The result is that those service providers which are members of IWF have automatically blocked their users from accessing the page in question. Many Wikipedians are extremely unhappy about this, suggesting that it is backdoor censorship by a self-appointed body, elected by no-one and which has no collective or individual right to dictate what anyone can look at on the web within the boundaries of the law as it currently stands. David Gerard, a spokesman for Wikipedia volunteers in the UK, told the BBC there was 'no evidence' that any court anywhere in the world, much less in the UK, had ever ruled this particular image was, is, or even might be illegal - indeed it has been included in several books of classic LP covers which are freely available to be viewed in many public libraries or even bought in WH Smiths or Waterstones. 'Are the police going to go into those libraries and rip out the offending page?' he asked, not unreasonably.

This issue is the subject of heated debate on Wikipedia's various mailing lists and forums. There is, perhaps inevitably, already a Facebook page calling for a boycott of all the ISPs which censor Wikipedia. Some commentators are even going so far as to suggest that this makes the UK little better than a country like China in terms of Internet censorship. Although - to be fair - other Wikipedia users are not quite so sure that this is the ideal issue over which to hold an anti-censorship campaign and that there are much more important battles to be fought than this rather trivial case. And, they may well be right.

A spokeswoman for the Internet Watch Foundation explained that the image had been referred to them by 'a member of the public.' After examination - and consultation with the police [my italics] - it was assessed (although 'assessed' by whom, she didn't state) as 'a potentially illegal image' and put on the list that is given to service providers, who then blocked the URL for their customers. This explanation troubles this blogger for two reasons - quite apart from the crass buck-passing of 'we didn't ban it, honest, your service provider did.' Firstly the idea that anything is 'potentially illegal' is absolutely idiotic. Something is either illegal or it isn't, there is no middle ground. If something has not been declared to be illegal, by a court of law, then by the very definition of what the word 'illegal' means, it must be legal. It might be morally questionable, it might well be extremely distasteful, it might even be hugely offensive to some, but it is not 'illegal.' If you're going to bandy about hugely emotive phrases concerning the concept of legality or otherwise then at least have the courtesy to get the terminology right. If you tell someone 'You can't do that, it's against the law,' and you're talking nonsense then they are, likely, going to reply: 'Well no, actually, it isn't. So, therefore, until it is I can do it and I'm bloody well going to.'

But, I think what troubles this blogger most about this spokeswoman's statement is the line about consulting with the police. The police are not - contrary to common belief - the arbiters of what is illegal and what isn't. Their job is to collate evidence of any potential crime having been committed and then place that evidence, together with those accused of having perpetrated the crime in question before a court of law who will do their job and make judgement on the matter. The idea that anyone from a single police officer to a collective constabulary can tell anyone 'don't do/show that, it's potentially illegal,' is an absurdity. If the police believe something is illegal, they have a duty to arrest the person they believe to be responsible and allow the CPS and the courts to decide upon questions of guilt or innocence. If they know that something is not illegal, even if they don't like it, then frankly they can shut the hell up and go and catch some proper criminals elsewhere. I've been troubled, I must say, for some time by a few statements this blogger has heard coming from police officers of various ranks along these lines. For instance, on the evening that Barry George was released on appeal from the life term he was serving for - allegedly - murdering Jill Dando, a spokeman for the Met was quoted as saying the police were, persumably collectively, 'disappointed' by the judgement. What the hell had it got to do with them? Their job is not to decide innocence or guilt, that's for the courts, their job is to investigate, detect, compile the evidence and present it. They might well think Barry George did kill Jill Dando. They might even be right, although the evidence they found and presented was always exceptionally slim and circumstancial and, ultimately, that's why an appeal court decided that he was not guilty of the charges and should be freed. And, as a consequence of that, in the eyes of the law he is an innocent man and that's the end of the matter. So why should the police dare to feel 'disappointed' by this judgement? How about you do your job, officer. Investigate this crime and this time do it properly and find the real killer instead of pontificating on matters that are not your concern. Either legally, or morally.
Ultimately, Scorpionsgate is a fascinating and slightly alarming case which sheds considerable light on a very important debate about freedom of speech in the Twenty First Century. Both on the Internet and, indeed, within our society at large. On one side there is an organisation which has been fighting to cleanse the web of images of abuse, waging a quasi-war which I think it's fair to say has the support - rightly - of the vast majority of web-users. On the other, however, we find digital libertarians who believe that once we let a group of unelected regulators decide what is fit for us to see and/or hear (as we are also in grave danger of doing in relation to Ofcom concerning radio and television) then we are stuck on a road which will inevitably lead to an Orwellian future of state control of every aspect of life. This blogger can - honestly - see both sides of the argument. But, ultimately, he is with the latter camp. When you start to say 'you can't look at that' you're only an inch away from saying 'you can't say that' and then an inch further from 'you can't think that.' And that's the sort of point when you're danger of seeing people burning books in the street, locking up dissidents and others quietly disappearing in the night.

We need freedom of speech. We need it whether we want - or even deserve - it, or otherwise.

Addition: 9 December. IWF announced that they had withdrawn their objection to the image in question, due - in part - to the length of time that it had been in the public domain. They were also reported to have acknowledged that whilst their overriding objective remains to minimise the availability of indecent images of children on the Internet on this particular occasion their efforts 'have had the opposite effect' and they apologised to Wikipedia - and to its users - for 'unintended consequences.' Good on them. This blogger thinks that's laudable - somebody realising what they've done, however well-intentioned, has been counterproductive and acknowledging the fact. Contrary to the unbending ideaology of theoretical Thatcherism 'doing a U-turn' is not a sign of weakness - quite the opposite, in fact. Those who recognise when a mistake has been made in their actions and seek to put it right are, frankly, to be congratulated not, as I imagine some less than charitable people are doing right now, sneered at. So, well done IWF, that's a sensible outcome.