Over at Ethan Zuckerman’s wonderful My Heart’s in Accra he flags a very recent and apparently serious emerging issue that is likely to become a growing problem with the rise and relentless rise of the cyber-nanny.

Is this how the web will sow the seeds of its own irrelevancy?

Will the web slowly eat itself and its own children?

While there has been a fair bit of (mostly negative) reaction to the Australian Government’s proposals to require the installation of some as-yet-not-adequately explained internet porn filters, in the UK the problem appears to be private cyber-nannys.

Ethan links to a report from The Register:

As of Sunday morning UK time, certain British web surfers were unable to view at least one Wikipedia article tagged with ostensible child porn. And, in a roundabout way, the filtering has resulted in Wikipedia admins banning large swaths of the United Kingdom from editing the “free encyclopedia anyone can edit”. On Friday, Wikipedia administrators noticed that Virgin Media, Be Unlimited/O2/Telefonica, EasyNet/UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, and Opal were routing Wikipedia traffic through a small number of transparent proxy servers as a way of blocking access to the encyclopedia’s article on Virgin Killer, a mid-1970s record album from German heavy metal band the Scorpions.

I think that the ‘offending’ image is beyond the pale – as did the many countries that banned it when the record was released in the mid-seventies.

But is this an indication of how far back in time the cyber-nannys will reach in order to save us from ourselves? What’s next – Blind Faith’s eponymous 1969 album artwork? Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind cover?

Regardless of the merits of the Scorpion’s cover art image it is the actions of the cyber-nannys that are of greater concern to me.

The current problems appear to have been caused by the actions of the Internet Watch Foundation (the IWF), a self-appointed and EU-funded body which describes itself as:

…the UK’s internet ‘Hotline’ 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.

The IWF has acknowledged blocking Wikipedia’s Virgin Killer article via British ISPs. A spokeswoman told The Reg that the organization believes the album cover image includes content that is consistent with the legal definition of child abuse, pointing out that under the UK Children Act, the only issue at stake is the content – not the intent of the publisher.

The Register provides an update, that, as of last weekend:

…the offending image is still freely available on Amazon, and as the controversy over Wikipedia rolls on, it is being reproduced on hundreds of sites available in the UK and across the world.

Ethan points out the essential flaw at the heart of online censorship:

This happens with almost all online censorship – censors end up blocking more than they wanted to, and they make a larger group of users aware that censorship is taking place. Few Turks are searching YouTube for content defaming Ataturk… but when Turkey blocks the whole site to Turkish viewers to block access to those videos, viewers ask why they can’t look at the video of the cute cat flushing the toilet. Millions of viewers who had no interest in an act of online activism end up paying attention because censors blocked more than they could have.

And Antony Loewenstein, in a recent presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University that in the main examined the role of censorship in oppressive regimes around the world, notes that proposals in Australia represent the first steps on a very slippery slope:

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is currently proposing the imposition of a mandatory filtering process to “protect Australian families and kids from some material that is currently on the net”, namely child pornography and ultra-violent sites.

It may sound benign enough, but the country’s leading internet service providers, free speech lobbyists and independent parliamentarians have all responded with outrage that such a proposal might be implemented. Aside from the question of current technology being incapable of monitoring the long list of websites that could allegedly breach Australian law – around 10,000, according to the government – there is the freedom of speech angle.

A number of politicians have advocated blocking online gaming sites, general pornography sites, euthanasia sites and pro-anorexia sites. What next?

I have a feeling that this issue will come into sharper focus in the coming days and I look forward to your comments and insights – I’m neither a tech-head nor across the finer legal and policy issues involved in the Australian and international debates on these issues so I welcome your thoughts…

And I wonder how long it will be before some local cyber-nanny decides that I should be pinged for putting ‘the offending image’ up on this post…

Over to you…