Just when you thought it was safe to dip your toe back in the waters of internet smut, along comes a bunch of vigilantes who could be about to make life a great deal more worrying. Or perhaps not - read on and make your own mind up.
This week, the new law on extreme porn went live throughout the UK (except Scotland). Hopes in some quarters that this law would prove a panacea to the nastier end of internet kinkiness were dashed last week when ACPO announced that they would not be actively policing it.
All change, however, as an organisation calling itself extremeporn mails The Register to announce that if the government won’t do it, they will. A slightly topsy-turvy argument on its homepage states:
We believe that the law should be enforced; not doing so breeds laziness and impreciseness in the legislature, lack of inspection of the law outside of the legislature, increased power of the executive due to selective enforcement and permits many people guilty - of a crime, if nothing else - to get away Scot-free … This is bad for everyone.
Some more explanation of what it plans to do is contained a little further into the site. They claim that they will primarily categorise and monitor torrents. Once a torrent has been added to their system, they will periodically poll the tracker for peer IPs and then use GeoIP technology to identify UK-based IPs. Where a match is found, the system will, in principle, email the abuse contact for that IP.
(This is where extremeporn’s claims become a little vague: they seem to be agreeing, however, that there are practical issues with this stage of the process.)
Despite this, they claim already to have filed more abuse reports than the Government planned to prosecute in an entire year.
So what is going on? Is this spoof or net vigilantism? A quick trace suggests that the domain name is registered to an individual going by the name of Adam Gleave. This may or may not be accurate.
In a further email sent to El Reg this afternoon, the site owner confessed that although the overall aim sounded a little grandiose, the project currently consists of "little more than 255 lines of Python code, a hastily assembled website, and a few, loose-knit members".
They add: "The government would have have spent at least £1 million to have achieved a similar feat, though."
Nonetheless, they do appear to be serious in their intent to out individuals caught downloading potentially illegal torrent content, arguing that they would only need a positive response from a very small proportion of ISPs for this action to have a significant effect.
Ambivalence as to their eventual aims is given by their suggestion that they would be willing to discuss ways in which people can evade our and others detection and censorship attempts on the internet, and censorship and policing attempts of the internet in general.
Technical experts have suggested that the process described by extremeporn is feasible, especially if supported by the Police, but they expressed some scepticism that it would work very well.
Beyond that, the site’s selection of stories and imagery to make its points are slightly more suggestive of an organisation that dislikes the government’s world view than one that buys into it. A link for "watchful eyes" takes readers to a disturbingly Orwellian poster produced by Transport for London, whilst a second link to an internet competency centre links to what appears to be a rather portly (and possibly German) euro-cop staring at his laptop.
There is also a fairly telling link to a story about an individual killed as a result of vigilantism. Ultimate irony or sharp political point?
The argument put forward by extremeporn to justify their actions is subtle, but probably more anti-censorship than first appears. Critics of the new law have argued that it is little more than a figleaf, and that the last thing government wishes to happen is for anyone to take it seriously. They’ve ticked the extreme porn box and can now concentrate on important things – like prostitution.
The authorities have traditionally been a little sniffy when it comes to freelance efforts and satirical websites. One only has to look at the Met’s reaction to thinkofthechildren – or the wider condemnation of possible freelance action to take down al-Qaeda websites from the US – to realise that independent action is not welcome.
So no surprise that we have had no comment from the IWF (a slight degree of jealousy, perhaps, that extremeporn appear to be venturing into territory they themselves cannot?) and from ACPO a fairly bland assurance that "the police service will use this new legislation as part of the toolkit that police officers have to combat pornographic crime. Wherever we encounter possession of extreme pornographic material we will investigate it further and take the necessary action.
"If there is a member of the public who is concerned that they have an illegal image in their possession, they should seek legal advice," the ACPO concludes.
Although if this site is genuine, it could be that the police will already have their hands full. ®