UK ISPs implement IWF censorship

December 8, 2008 | 13:40

Tags: #censor #censorship #child-abuse #child-pornography #filter #firewall #proxy

Companies: #iwf

If you thought that invisible web censorship was something that only happened overseas, think again: it would appear that several UK ISPs have teamed up with the Internet Watch Foundation to bring us our own Great Firewall.

According to an article published over the weekend on ZDNet, a plethora of UK ISPs – Virgin Media, Be, O2, Telefonica, EasyNet, UK Online, PlusNet, Demon, Eclipse Internet, Kingston Communications, Sky Broadband, and Opal to name but a few – have activated a transparent proxy system at the behest of UK censorship body the Internet Watch Foundation in order to police “child sexual abuse content” and other “criminally obscene [or] incitement to racial hatred” materials online.

The filtering system – which has not been communicated to ISPs' customers in any way – was discovered by Wikipedia users who noticed that every single UK request to the website seemed to be coming from a small number of IP addresses. As Wikipedia relies on the ability to block addresses being used by 'vandals', this resulted in automated blocking systems preventing thousands of users editing pages. Users affected by the filtering will be greeted by a message saying “Wikipedia has been added to a Internet Watch Foundation UK website blacklist, and your Internet service provider has decided to block part of your access. Unfortunately, this also makes it impossible for us to differentiate between different users, and block those abusing the site without blocking other innocent people as well.

While the transparent proxy system can be circumvented quite easily – it relies on traffic travelling via port 80, so secure connections on port 443 are ignored – issues are still likely to crop up on websites that rely on semi-unique IP addresses to differentiate users. Ironically, a system designed to offer tracing of illegal content may very well end up offering cyber-criminals an easy way of increasing their anonymity online – if they're appearing from an IP address at the same time as a few thousand legitimate users, they're hidden by the noise.

Although no official word has yet come from either the IWF or the ISPs involved, it is thought that the system comes as part of a wider crackdown on images of child abuse on the Internet. While the IWF has offered its Cleanfeed domain blacklist system to ISPs for a while, this move represents the first attempt to detect and filter the traffic of all major UK ISPs without the knowledge or consent of the end user. While the IWF's goal is laudable, their methods are sure the leave a bad taste in the mouths of anyone interested in freedom of speech and free dissemination of information online - especially when one notes that the IWF is known for its trigger-happy blocking policies, often adding material to its blacklists which is not illegal under UK law.

Is this latest move another sign of politics intruding into the free running of the Internet, or is this kind of technology a necessary evil with the completely reasonable aim of eradication of objectionable content? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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