The Internet Watch Foundation has removed Wikipedia from its child porn blacklist, despite its contention that the free online encyclopedia includes an image "potentially in breach" of the UK Protection of Children Act.
On Friday, under instructions from the IWF, several major UK ISPs began censoring a Wikipedia article dedicated to Virgin Killer, a 1976 record album from German heavy metal band The Scorpions. The album's original cover includes the image of a naked prepubescent girl whose genitals are covered only by what appears to be a cracked camera lens.
After the release of Virgin Killer, the controversial album cover was replaced by another in the US and the UK and was banned in other countries.
The IWF received a complaint about the image earlier this month, and after deciding it may violate the law, the British net censor added Wikipedia to a blacklist designed to protect the customers of ISPs and other companies "from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child."
In order to block the image, six ISPs - Virgin Media, Be Unlimited/O2/Telefonica, EasyNet/UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, and Opal - began routing all Wikipedia traffic through a small number of transparent proxy servers. In some cases, the ISPs also blocked the entire Wikipedia article - not just the image.
What's more, the blacklists overturned Wikipedia system from accepting edits from the world at large. Because the ISPs were funneling traffic through proxies, large numbers of would-be UK editors appeared to be coming from the same IP range. This meant that Wikipedia administrators had no choice but to ban editing from most of the UK as part of its ongoing efforts to prevent encyclopedia "vandalism."
Editors with registered accounts were not affected.
But today, after complaints from across the web, the IWF backtracked on its decision with a statement posted to its web site. "The IWF board has today considered [its previous] findings and the contextual issues involved in this specific case, and – in the light of the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability – the decision has been taken to remove this web page from our list," the statement read.
The Virgin Killer image has turned up on sites across the web, including Amazon.com.
"IWF’s overriding objective is to minimise the availability of indecent images of children on the internet, however, on this occasion our efforts have had the opposite effect," the statement continued. "We regret the unintended consequences for Wikipedia and its users."
The Wikimedia Foundation - the not-for-profit that oversees Wikipedia - is pleased. "We are grateful to the IWF for making this swift decision, and to thousands of internet users from around the world for their outpouring of support," said Sue Gardner, executive director of the foundation. "Millions of Britons now have access to all of Wikipedia, and volunteers can resume their important editing work.
"The Wikimedia Foundation greatly admires the work of our volunteers - they care deeply about Wikipedia and are the first responders in dealing with potentially illegal content on Wikipedia."
But you have to wonder why Wikipedia included the image in the first place. One longtime administrator expresses mixed feelings. "I don't like the graphic and wish there was a way around it," this admin told The Reg. "But the reflex urge to shout 'Wikipedia is not censored' and the legitimate controversy about the image...means that Wikipedia should cover it, and the image in question is fair-use."
We never thought we'd say such thing, but as the controversy over Wikipedia's IWF ban bubbled to a boil, the voice of reason came from co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales. "I would recommend to the community that we go back and take a hard look at whether we ought to be keeping this based on our own principles, if it is in fact likely to be in violation of the law in the UK and (especially) US," he wrote.
"As a community, we are already quite firm: we do not and will not accept images of child pornography. So then the question becomes: does this image fit the definition under (especially) US law, or the law of any particularly relevant countries (UK). That is a question of judgment of fact that I do not think has been looked at sufficiently." ®