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Monday, December 08, 2008 

Wikipaedia.

Another erotic album cover pose?

It occasionally takes a decision made ultimately by an underling to expose the stupidity that often underlies some of the laws which govern us - and the moronic, for it can only be described as moronic, decision by someone simply doing their job at the Internet Watch Foundation that an album cover by an otherwise almost forgotten metal band from the 70s amounts to child pornography, although of the very lowest level, resulting in the blocking of the editing of Wikipedia for sections of the UK deserves to be one of those.

The Internet Watch Foundation's main work is blocking images of "child sexual abuse images" (according to them, terms such as child pornography "are not acceptable", as apparently the "use of such language acts to legitimise images which are not pornography, rather, they are permanent records of children being sexually abused", which suggests they don't just want to censor images but words also) which for the most part, with the exception more than ably illustrated today, is uncontroversial. Less well-known however is that they also block material which incites "racial hatred", although again how much of it they actually do block is impossible to know, but also material which potentially breaches the Obscene Publications Act. The OPA, notoriously, defines an obscene publication as something which is liable to both "deprave and corrupt", something wholly subjective and which juries, notably during the 1980s, could not decide upon when the "video nasties" were prosecuted. Some found some of the films brought before them to be obscene; others decided that the exact same films were in fact, not obscene. Most recently this remit resulted in the prosecution of Darryn Walker, author of a short story depicting the kidnap, rape and murder of the pop group Girls Aloud, apparently first reported to them and passed by them onto the police. His trial is upcoming.

That decision was one of the first to alert us to the vagaries of an apparently unaccountable organisation which still deigns fiction to be liable to bring out the inner Daily Mail reader in us all, but the blocking of the "Virgin Killer" cover is far more instructive of what might be yet to come. According to the IWF, the Virgin Killer cover amounts to level 1 indecent image of a child, as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Level 1 images depict "erotic posing with no sexual activity". Whilst all the successive levels involve actual sexual activity of one variety or another, level 1 is, like the OPA definition, utterly subjective. Is the girl in the image posing erotically? Quite possibly. Even if she is however, surely the extenuating circumstances surrounding the image should have been taken into consideration. Not only is the image over 30 years old, been available on the high street without causing any real high profile attention, but a tiny amount of background reading from the controversy that had arisen over it would have shown that the girl depicted was someone related to those behind the cover design, that she had posed willingly at the time and has no objections to it now still being used. That the image is not just available on Wikipedia, but also on Amazon (or at least was) and a dozen other places via a Google search, ought to have suggested that this should be a special case.

Instead what we have is an organisation which thinks that using a sledgehammer to crack a nut is both a good idea, and one which is only concerned by doing things entirely by the rules as set out before them. Image is, according to their thinking, obscene, therefore it must be blocked. As it isn't hosted in this country and therefore the ISP responsible cannot be ordered (surely asked politely? Ed.) to take it down, proxy servers and fake 404 pages are set-up to do the job. No thought is given to how this might affect what is after all a rather larger endeavour than a Scorpions album cover repository. The statement from the organisation doesn't even begin to delve into how the decision was came to be made in detail: instead, all they've done is added the URL 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". Protect is the key word; that's after all what they're doing. It doesn't matter that no one would ever be prosecuted over a single image, especially one in such wide circulation; the general public but most of all their customers needs to be saved from potential "inadvertent exposure".

Where after all does all of this end? As others have already pointed out, children have throughout art history been depicted naked, perhaps, it deserves to be pointed out, in more innocent, less hysterical times. Recently the London Underground briefly banned the image of a nude Venus lest anyone be sexually aroused by the advert for an exhibition. If someone for instance posted images of their children online in a photo album (not advisable by any yardstick), and one of these was reported by the same apparent busybody that reported this one to the IWF, and was decided by one of their employees to involve an "erotic pose", would that find itself being blocked too? If "Klara and Edda Belly Dancing" was reported to the IWF, would they demure from the police decision not to prosecute after it was seized from an exhibition and potentially suggest that it also involved erotic posing?

The real concern here though is not over idiotic individual decisions, but rather that from the end of January next year the IWF will also have the power to block "extreme pornography", the kind recently outlawed after parliament abjectly failed to prevent the campaign by Liz Longhurst reaching its ultimate conclusion. This will potentially lead to the blocking of any pornographic material, which is again subjective, which portrays the threatening of a person's life or which results or is likely to result in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitalia, to say nothing of the ban it also places on apparent necrophilia or bestiality. The Heresiarch noted at the time of the Brand-Ross frenzy that the fragrant Georgina Baillie had appeared in material which could well find itself falling foul of the law and which the Daily Mail had republished. To suggest that the law in this case is nonsensical is perhaps to be too kind; the contradictions and lunacy of banning out and out pornographic material featuring necrophilia, for example, when "art" films such as Visitor Q, which features a man killing and then having sex with the corpse of his victim (although that's not by any means an adequate explanation of what goes on and it is a rather excellent film by the consistently outrageous Takashi Miike), Kissed and Love Me Deadly are considered fine to be seen by those over 18, despite the fact that what one man deems culture another deems beating off material have to literally (or ought to be) be seen to be believed. Who has any confidence whatsoever in the IWF making sensible decisions based on the current performance?

It would be nice to imagine that it ends there. But it doesn't. There are plans to ban drawn material which depicts "abuse" or sex between child and adult, which sounds fair enough, but which is likely to be used not just to ban "lolicon", as such anime-type material is known, but hentai and other anime where the age of those involved is not so obvious. Having therefore made those predisposed to sadomasochistic material potentially breach the law to otherwise further their perfectly legal personal habits, the government seems to wish to criminalise those that enjoy the likes of La Blue Girl (already admittedly banned or heavily cut when submitted to the BBFC) or other fantastical hentai as well. Along with the plans to prosecute those who have sex with prostitutes "controlled by others" with rape, with ignorance not being an excuse, you'd similarly be excused for imagining that the government was determined to diminish sexual freedom as a whole by stealth, all so that one-off campaigners and tabloid newspapers can sleep secure in their beds knowing that perverts aren't masturbating and potentially incubating deviant thoughts which they will subsequently carry out on others. Although whether someone will ever successfully create a tentacle monster remains to be seen.

If this sounds like a slippery slope argument, suggesting that child pornography isn't so bad really honest, then it isn't. It does however come down to whether you think that the likes of the Scorpion album cover is an image of abuse, as the IWF does. If you don't, then you have reason to be concerned not just that an organisation like the IWF which claims to be self-regulating has such a potentially chilling control over the internet in this country, but also that the government seems convinced that far less exploitative imagery must also be banned for all our sakes. Then we won't just that IWF to blame and attack, but ourselves also.

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This whole case utterly baffles me. How is this possible?

Thanks for posting on this - I'm still at a loss though - but that's not your fault obviously!

In response to Jim's "How is this possible", you might want to read some background on how the IWF (ne SafetyNet) came about, by the people who formed it. The ukcrypto mailing list has this discussion from the founders and a current board member ...

http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/pipermail/ukcrypto/2008-December/thread.html#85768

http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/pipermail/ukcrypto/2008-December/085799.html

http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/pipermail/ukcrypto/2008-December/085812.html

http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/pipermail/ukcrypto/2008-December/085830.html

The question of course is (a) whether the IWF is still fit for purpose, and (b) whether the current government are capable of putting in something which is more transparent, accountable and an improvement. The answers I suspect are (a) probably not and (b) no way.

This is a heartbreaking and worrying turn of events, pointless and dangerous censorship that will just lead to the terrible album cover being put up all across the internet.

Including at mine.

I'm a bit worried about my Blind Faith LP.

It's often abused as a phrase but Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? does seem appropriate here.

Maybe the IOC will seek to lift the firewall for 2012.

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