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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Welcome to Great (Firewall) Britain

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Most Internet users have heard of the Great Firewall of China – the technological measures put in place by the Chinese government to censor material from outside the country, and to monitor Internet usage within it.

And most people have probably assumed that this is just a typical manifestation of an authoritarian regime that insists on keeping a tight control on its people. Alas, it turns out that any sense of superiority we Brits might feel is entirely misplaced, because exactly the same thing is happening in the UK.

As a result of this UK censorship, it has become impossible to use Wikipedia as before (as usual, there are workarounds, but that's beside the point). A statement from the Internet Watch Foundation explains what has happened:

A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109).

The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment.

The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.

Wikipedia notes the following consequences:

On 5 December 2008, the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation blacklisted the article Virgin Killer and a related image as potentially illegal in the United Kingdom. Several large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that cooperate with the IWF subsequently blocked them from being viewed, affecting an estimated 95% of residential Internet users in the UK.[1]

Due to the way the block was created (via transparent proxies), users from the affected ISPs now share a small number of IP addresses. This means that a user committing vandalism cannot be distinguished from all the other people on the same ISP.

Unfortunately, the effect of this is that all users from the affected ISPs are temporarily blocked from editing Wikipedia. Simply viewing the site is not affected, aside from the blocked article and image.

The Wikimedia Foundation offered these thoughts:

“We have no reason to believe the article, or the image contained in the article, has been held to be illegal in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world,” said the Wikimedia Foundation's General Counsel, Mike Godwin. “We believe it's worth noting that the image is currently visible on Amazon, where the album can be freely purchased by UK residents. It is available on thousands of websites that are accessible to the UK public.”

“The IWF didn't just block the image; it blocked access to the article itself, which discusses the image in a neutral, encyclopedic fashion,” said Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

“The IWF says its goal is to protect UK citizens, but I can't see how this action helps to achieve that – and meanwhile, it deprives UK internet users of the ability to access information which should be freely available to everyone. I urge the IWF to remove Wikipedia from its blacklist.”

Nobody is suggesting that child pornography is defensible, but this episode has exposed how trivially easy it is to block not just an image, but an entire site – even one as popular and important as Wikipedia – thanks to a centralised routeing system.

That on its own is disquieting enough, but in the current climate of government clampdown on unauthorised sources of information, it becomes extremely dangerous too.

For example, the Wikileaks site has recently published two documents that the UK government would doubtless rather have kept secret. The first is a three page letter from Scotland Yard's Robert Quick, Assistant Commissioner of Special Operations (counter-terrorism chief), to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith over the Parliamentry raid on Damian Green.

The second is the non-disclosure agreement for companies bidding for work relating to the UK ID card scheme, one of whose clauses allows the Home Office access to the property, computers and records of ID card companies, their employees and subcontractors at the "sole discretion" of the Home Secretary - no search warrant or judicial oversight would be required.

There is a strong public interest case for being able to view both of these, but in the light of the Wikipedia incident, it would clearly be trivial for the government to instruct the Internet Watch Foundation to block either those particular documents or the whole of Wikileaks (since it is likely that more and more material embarrassing to the UK government will be posted there in the future given the evident dangers of sending it to an MP, say.)

As with Wikipedia, there will be workarounds that let Net-savvy users circumvent these restrictions. But for the general public, those pages will be inaccessible, and the material they offer will no longer exist. The situation will be exactly comparable to that of China, which uses its Great Firewall to block not only pornography, but material that it finds politically dangerous – for example about the Tiananmen Square massacre, or its treatment of the Tibetan people.

Now is the time for a debate about whether this country really wants to adopts that model for censoring the Internet, or whether we need to find better, more proportionate solutions – preferably de-centralised.

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