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Some internet related stories from 2008

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:18 am on 2 January, 2009.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Here’s a round-up of some internet related stories I didn’t manage to cover in 2008:

  • The Telegraph reported in November on plans to set up a watchdog to protect internet users from abusive or malicious content (note that libel and privacy laws can already deal with the cases referred to in the article):

    Internet users will be protected from abusive bloggers and malicious Facebook postings under proposals to set up an independent internet watchdog, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.

    The body, made up of industry representatives, would be responsible for drawing up guidelines that social networking sites, the blogosphere, website owners and search engines would be expected to follow.

    The recommendation is one of several that the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee is expected to make tomorrow (Thurs) in its long-awaited report on harmful content on the internet and in video games.

    Under the proposals, the new internet watchdog would operate in a similar way to other industry bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission, which enforces a code of practice for the UK newspaper and magazine industry, covering accuracy, discrimination and intrusion.

    The watchdog would not have any statutory powers to impose fines but would investigate complaints and most likely publish its decisions in instances when its guidelines have been breached.

    It is understood that it would also be able to order bloggers and social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace to take down offensive messages or photographs.

    Thanks to They Work For You, you can read the Parliamentary debate online, in which the MPs seemed mainly focused on how to regulate the internet and not whether it should be regulated. The UK Liberty blog provided pertinent commentary on this debate, as did John Ozimek at the Register. The Report on Harmful Content on the Internet can be found at the 2007-2008 publications page for the Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport. I’ll return to this report in a later post.

  • In September, The Guardian reported that the Thai government tried to shut down 400 websites during a state of emergency:

    Thailand’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry sought court orders yesterday to shut down about 400 websites and advised internet service providers to block 1,200 sites it considers are disturbing the social order or are a danger to national security.

    ICT minister Mun Patanotai said the department had advised ISPs to immediately block these websites, which it claimed were detected between March and August this year, and had sought court actions against them under article 20 of Thailand’s Computer Crime Act.

  • Also in September, Spy Blog reported on some attempts to use the threat of libel action to force bloggers to remove material they had posted:

    We have been challenged by the Miserable Old Fart blogger in Wales to support a Labour blogger Kezia Dugdale in Scotland, who has been forced to take down a blog article at short notice, as a result of bullying legal threats from Glasgow based “media lawyers” Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co hired by a millionaire Scottish Nationalist Party Councillor Jahangir Hanif, even though there has, as yet, not been any libel action or court order.

    This political censorship seems to have been as a result of Kezia being one several bloggers who published what seems to be the full letter from Noor Hanif , the 17 year old daughter of Jahangir Hanif, to the leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, which paints her father as a violent, devious, domineering bully, as well as puncturing some of the spin and gloss put out by him regarding the AK-47 incident in Pakistan, for which he has been temporarily suspended from the SNP. Parts of the letter have been quoted in National and Scottish newspapers and it has been referred to in debate in the Scottish Parliament.

    This letter was removed from this site after Councillor Hanif’s solicitors intimated their intention to raise a summons in the Court of Session for interim interdict. The firm of Bannatyne, Kirkwood, France and Co., gave this site 15 minutes to remove the letter.

    15 minutes ? Such bullying is reminiscent of the notorious Schillings in London or Lavely & Singer in Los Angeles.

    See Tim Ireland’s write up of some the recent media coverage of the Jahangir Hanif scandals.

    We are a bit unclear about the differences between libel law in Scotland and in England & Wales. There certainly have been cases where an English High Court Injunction has been perfectly legally broken by newspapers in Scotland, so, presumably, the reverse must also be true.

    The libel laws in the United Kingdom, which allow expensive lawyers to bully poor people, especially those expressing their right of free speech on the internet, despite the guilt of their rich clients, must be reformed as soon as possible.

    When will rich clients demand their money back, with interest and damages, after hiring “media lawyers” who only succeed in stirring up the Streisand Effect, and spreading the information which they are trying to suppress on the internet, to a much wider audience, than if they had simply ignored it ?

  • Several stories appeared relating to the EU and blogs. EU Referendum, Pub Philosopher and the Telegraph have covered various stories about how the EU intends to regulate blogs, including disciplining a UKIP press officer, working in the European Parliament, for writing an EU sceptic blog. The European Parliament also discussed banning anonymous blogs.
  • The Open Rights Group reported on the banning of a Wikipedia page by the Internet Watch Foundation:

    The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) confirmed yesterday that it had added a Wikipedia web page to its blacklist, having assessed the image according to specified guidelines, and considered it to be a potentially illegal, indecent image of a child. The image depicted cover artwork of a 1976 album by the German heavy-metal band Scorpions. The album was originally distributed in the UK with a different cover.

    The announcement confirmed evidence gathered by concerned internet users throughout the day that links to the image were returning 404 error messages through a variety of major internet service providers. Matters were confounded as a side effect of the operation to block the image emerged, resulting in all UK users of ISPs who employ the IWF blacklist appearing to Wikipedia servers to come from only a handful of IP addresses. That meant users from the affected ISPs – a large majority of UK internet users – were blocked from editing Wikipedia anonymously or creating new editing accounts, since one user committing vandalism could not be distinguished from all the other people on the same ISP.

    People from the UK who wanted to log in to Wikipedia are thus trapped between two mutually incompatible content regulation systems. Their traffic is re-routed through one of only a handful of servers in an attempt by their ISP to protect them from what the IWF believes is “bad content”. Then they arrive at one of the most popular websites in the world only to be blocked from entering thanks to the methods employed there to protect users from what Wikipedia believes is “bad content”.

    For many, the episode will have brought into focus for the first time the IWF’s work identifying URLs that link to illegal images, as well as the fact that most consumer ISPs have now agreed to block content on the IWF list. And those who already knew about this system, but thought it would not affect them, will today be thinking again. The question is how far this episode challenges current UK practice around censoring content online.

    Note that the IWF eventually unblocked the offending page. However this episode has raised questions about how the IWF carries out its functions.

  • The Register has been covering the story of how the Australian government plans to put filters in place on the internet down under:

    Regular readers will be aware of the Australian Government’s plans to clamp down on the internet down under. These, the brainchild of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, have been bubbling away since last year, and began, as so many half-baked government schemes do, with the plea that someone “think of the children”.

    The scheme would put in place a server-level content filtering system, to block material unsuitable for children. The cat was put well and truly amongst the pigeons with the recent claim by Internode network engineer Mark Newton that there will be no opt-out from filtering for parents.

    Rather, there will be a blacklist that parents can opt into to “protect their children”.

    But failing to opt into that list would merely switch users to an alternative filtering system, trapping content deemed unsuitable for adults.

    According to Newton: “That is the way the testing was formulated, the way the upcoming live trials will run, and the way the policy is framed; to believe otherwise is to believe that a government department would go to the lengths of declaring that some kind of internet content is illegal, then allow an opt-out”.

    Cue outrage from the leaders of three of Australia’s largest internet service providers — Telstra Media’s Justin Milne, iiNet’s Michael Malone and Internode’s Simon Hackett. They variously describe the scheme as “loony”, a “bugger to implement”, likely to slow down Australian access to the internet significantly, and quite possibly illegal.

    According to Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, “you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation” just to achieve this.

    Is this such an impossible task? We spoke to CensorNet, a UK company that provides software that enables official bodies to filter out content in the UK, and which is speaking to a couple of Australian ISPs about this project. Its view is that the slow down feared by ISPs is unlikely.

    However, the firm foresees two issues with any solution. Most filters tackle just the HTTP. But HTTP accounts for an average of 25 per cent of a user’s bandwidth, with the rest taken up by other traffic, including email, peer-to-peer and instant messaging.

    The other issue is about identifying the content to filter in the first place. Most filtering systems use a database that categorises content, and then blocks or filters webpages according to category. CensorNet uses the RuleSpace technology, which automatically classifies web content before filtering.

    At present, no automated classification works perfectly - no system can automatically detect content that is allegedly “illegal” - and RuleSpace is no exception. A popular implementation for, say, schools is to block specified categories and unclassified content. Whether adults would be happy with a solution that could block over half the internet from their screens is another matter.

  • Finally, late last year, the Telegraph reported that the British government may require websites to have cinema-style age ratings:

    In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama’s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

    The Cabinet minister describes the internet as “quite a dangerous place” and says he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.

    Giving film-style ratings to individual websites is one of the options being considered, he confirms. When asked directly whether age ratings could be introduced, Mr Burnham replies: “Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.”

    ISPs, such as BT, Tiscali, AOL or Sky could also be forced to offer internet services where the only websites accessible are those deemed suitable for children.

    Mr Burnham also uses the interview to indicate that he will allocate money raised from the BBC’s commercial activities to fund other public-service broadcasting such as Channel Four. He effectively rules out sharing the BBC licence fee between broadcasters as others have recommended.

    His plans to rein in the internet, and censor some websites, are likely to trigger a major row with online advocates who ferociously guard the freedom of the world wide web.

    However, Mr Burnham said: “If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

    “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

    Mr Burnham reveals that he is currently considering a range of new safeguards. Initially, as with copyright violations, these could be policed by internet providers. However, new laws may be threatened if the initial approach is not successful.

    “I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,” he said. “More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place?”

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