The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a non-governmental charitable body based in the United Kingdom. It offers an online service for the public and IT professionals to report content on the Internet that it considers to be "potentially illegal". As part of its function, the IWF produces a blacklist of Internet sites and content that it deems to be in contravention/potentially in contravention to UK laws. Since 2010, blocking Internet users from accessing the content on this list is mandatory for all UK based ISPs that want to be eligible for contracts with government agencies and other public bodies.
The IWF operates in informal partnership with the police, government, public and Internet service providers. Originally formed to police suspected child pornography online, the IWF's remit was later expanded to cover racist and criminally obscene material.
The IWF is an incorporated charity, limited by guarantee, and largely funded by voluntary contributions from UK communications service providers, including ISPs, mobile phone operators, Internet trade associations, search engines, hardware manufacturers, and software providers. It also receives funding from the Association for Payment Clearing Services and the European Union.
The IWF is governed by a Board of Trustees which consists of an independent chair, six non-industry representatives, and three industry representatives. The Board monitors and reviews IWF's remit, strategy, policy and budget to enable the IWF to achieve its objectives. The IWF operates from offices in Oakington, near Cambridge.
- 1 History
- 2 The website
- 3 Management
- 4 Blacklist
- 5 Criticism
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 External links
During 1996 the Metropolitan Police told the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) that the content carried by some of the newsgroups made available by them was illegal, that they considered the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) involved to be publishers of that material, and that they were therefore breaking the law. In August 1996, Chief Inspector Stephen French, of the Metropolitan Police Clubs & Vice Unit, sent an open letter to the ISPA, requesting that they ban access to a list of 132 newsgroups, many of which were deemed to contain pornographic images or explicit text.
This list is not exhaustive and we are looking to you to monitor your newsgroups identifying and taking necessary action against those others found to contain such material. As you will be aware the publication of obscene articles is an offence. This list is only the starting point and we hope, with the co-operation and assistance of the industry and your trade organisations, to be moving quickly towards the eradication of this type of newsgroup from the Internet ... We are very anxious that all service providers should be taking positive action now, whether or not they are members of a trade association. We trust that with your co-operation and self regulation it will not be necessary for us to move to an enforcement policy.—Chief Inspector Stephen French, quoted in Web Control
The list was arranged so that the first section consisted of unambiguously titled paedophile newsgroups, then continued with other kinds of groups which the police wanted to restrict access to, including alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.cheerleaders and alt.binaries.pictures.erotic.centerfolds.
Although this action had taken place without any prior debate in Parliament or elsewhere, the police, who appeared to be doing their best to create and not simply to enforce the law, were not acting entirely on their own initiative. Alan Travis, Home Affairs editor of the newspaper The Guardian, explained in his book "Bound and Gagged" that Ian Taylor, the Conservative Science and Industry Minister at the time, had underlined an explicit threat to ISPs that if they did not stop carrying the newsgroups in question, the police would act against any company that provided their users with "pornographic or violent material". Taylor went on to make it clear that there would be calls for legislation to regulate all aspects of the Internet unless service providers were seen to wholeheartedly "responsible self-regulation".
Demon Internet regarded the police request as "unacceptable censorship"; however, its attitude annoyed ISPA chairman Shez Hamill, who said:
We are being portrayed as a bunch of porn merchants. This is an image we need to change. Many of our members have already acted to take away the worst of the Internet. But Demon have taken every opportunity to stand alone in this regard. They do not like the concept of our organisation.—Observer, 25 August 1996
Following this, a tabloid-style exposé of ISP Demon Internet appeared in the Observer newspaper, which alleged that Clive Feather (a director of Demon) "provides paedophiles with access to thousands of photographs of children being sexually abused".
During the summer and autumn of 1996 the UK police made it known that they were planning to raid an ISP with the aim of launching a test case regarding the publication of obscene material over the Internet. The direct result of the campaign of threats and pressure was the establishment of the Internet Watch Foundation (initially known as the Safety Net Foundation) in September 1996.
Foundation of IWF
Facilitated by the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI), discussions were held between certain ISPs, the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office, and a body called the "Safety Net Foundation" (formed by the Dawe Charitable Trust). This resulted in the "R3 Safety Net Agreement", where "R3" referred to the triple approach of rating, reporting, and responsibility. In September 1996, this agreement was made between the ISPA, LINX, and the Safety Net Foundation, which was subsequently renamed the Internet Watch Foundation. The agreement set requirements for associated ISPs regarding identifiability and traceability of Internet users; ISPs had to cooperate with the IWF to identify providers of illegal content and facilitate easier traceability.
Demon Internet was a driving force behind the IWF's creation, and one of its employees, Clive Feather, became the IWF's first chair of the Funding Board  and solicitor Mark Stephens the First Chair of the IWF's Policy Board. The Policy Board developed codes, guidance, operational oversight and a hotline for reporting content.
The Funding Board, made up of industry representatives and Chair of Policy Board, provided the wherewithall for the IWF's day to day activities as set down and required by the Policy Board.
After 3 years of operation, the IWF was reviewed for the DTI and the Home Office by consultants KPMG and Denton Hall. Their report was delivered in October 1999 and resulted in a number of changes being made to the role and structure of the organisation, and it was relaunched in early 2000, endorsed by the government and the DTI, which played a "facilitating role in its creation", according to a DTI spokesman.
At the time, Patricia Hewitt, then Minister for E-Commerce, said: "The Internet Watch Foundation plays a vital role in combating criminal material on the Net." To counter accusations that the IWF was biased in favour of the ISPs, a new independent chairman was appointed, Roger Darlington, former head of research at the Communication Workers Union.
The IWF's website offers a web-based government-endorsed method for reporting suspect online content and remains the only such operation in the United Kingdom. It acts as a Relevant Authority in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding concerning Section 46 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (meaning that its analysts will not be prosecuted for looking at illegal content in the course of their duties). Reports can be submitted anonymously. The IWF aims to minimise the availability of potentially illegal Internet content, specifically:
- Indecent images of under-18s hosted anywhere in the world;
- criminally obscene content hosted in the UK, or anywhere in the world if uploaded by a British citizen (under the Obscene Publications Acts);
- incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK
However, almost the whole of the IWF site is concerned with suspected child pornography with little mention of the rest of their remit (racial hatred and criminally obscene material). Images judged by the IWF to be child pornography are blocked, whilst other possibly illegal content is reported to the police for further action.
The Government claimed that they would also be handling images of adult "extreme pornography" which are now illegal for UK citizens to possess as of 26 January 2009. The IWF now includes "extreme pornography" as an example under "criminally obscene content", meaning that they will report material hosted in the UK, or uploaded by a British citizen, but has stated that it has no plans to block any such material, or handle sites hosted outside on the UK.
The IWF states that it works in partnership with UK Government departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to influence initiatives and programmes developed to combat online abuse.
They are funded by the European Union and the online industry. This includes Internet service providers, mobile operators and manufacturers, content service providers, telecommunications and filtering companies, search providers and the financial sector as well as blue-chip and other organisations who support the IWF for corporate social responsibility reasons.
Through their "Hotline" reporting system, the organisation helps ISPs to combat abuse of their services through a "notice and take down" service by alerting them to any potentially illegal content within their remit on their systems and simultaneously invites the police to investigate the publisher.
Peter Robbins OBE, QPM is IWF Chief Executive
Sarah Robertson is IWF Director of Communications
Fred Langford is IWF Director of Technology and Content
Previously, the IWF passed on notifications of suspected child pornography hosted on non-UK servers to the UK National Criminal Intelligence Service which in turn forwards it to Interpol or the relevant foreign police authority. It now works with the Serious Organised Crime Agency instead. The IWF does not, however, pass on notifications of other types of illegal content hosted outside the UK.
The IWF compiles and maintains a blacklist, mainly of what it considers child pornography URLs, from which 95% of commercial Internet customers in the UK are filtered. A staff of four police-trained analysts are responsible for this work, and the director of the service has claimed that the analysts are capable of adding an average of 65-80 new URLs to the list each week, and act on reports received from the public rather than pursuing investigative research.
Between 2004 and 2006, BT Group introduced its Cleanfeed technology which was then used by 80% of internet service providers. BT spokesman Jon Carter described Cleanfeed's function as "to block access to illegal Web sites that are listed by the Internet Watch Foundation", and described it as essentially a server hosting a filter that checked requested URLs for Web sites on the IWF list, and returning an error message of "Web site not found" for positive matches.
In 2006, Home Office minister Alan Campbell pledged that all ISPs would block access to child abuse websites by the end of 2007. By the middle of 2006 the government reported that 90% of domestic broadband connections were either currently blocking or had plans to by the end of the year. The target for 100% coverage was set for the end of 2007, however in the middle of 2008 it stood at 95%. In February 2009, the Government said that it is looking at ways to cover the final 5%. In an interview in March 2009, a Home Office spokesperson mistakenly thought that the IWF deleted illegal content, and didn't look at the content they rate.
Although the IWF's blacklist causes content to be censored even if the content has not been found to be illegal by a court of law, IWF Director of Communications Sarah Robertson claimed, on 8 December 2008, that the IWF is opposed to the censorship of legal content. In the case of the IWF's blacklisting of cover art hosted on Wikipedia just a few days prior, she claimed that “The IWF found the image to be illegal”, despite the body not having any legal jurisdiction to do so.
In March 2009 a Home Office spokesperson said that ISPs were being pressured to sign up to the IWF's blacklist in order to block child pornography websites and said that there was no alternative to using the IWF's blacklist. One of the ISPs which refused to subscribe to the blacklist, Zen Internet, has said that it has "concerns over its effectiveness".
As of 2009, the blacklist was said to contain about 450 URLs. A 2009 study by researcher Richard Clayton at the University of Cambridge found that about a quarter of them were on (otherwise) legitimate free file hosting services, among them RapidShare, Megaupload, SendSpace and Zshare. According to the Times, the list contained "between 500 and 800 websites" as of March 2010, and was updated two times per day.
It appears, around July/August 2010, Megaupload, and Megavideo were added to the blacklist again. Access to these sites via some exchange routers used by O2 broadband is restricted. A few members appear to be blocked with no way of appealing this decision.
On 26 July 2007, UK tabloid newspaper The Daily Star reported that it had discovered an online text story about British pop group Girls Aloud that it described as "a chilling story detailing each singer's gory death in scenes that could be straight out of a horror movie", characterizing its author as "a vile internet psycho" and "a cyber-sicko". The news story said that The Daily Star had reported the content of the hosting website, "Kristen Archives" (a subsite of the ASSTR archive), to the IWF, and that the IWF had traced the site to the US. It also claimed that Interpol had been notified to help track down the site's operators and the writer of the story. An IWF spokesperson was reported as saying that since the site was hosted in the US, it fell outside the organization's remit, but that they were aware of the site. The spokesperson added that the site also contained "child abuse fantasy stories" and that they had passed on details of it to the British police.
Although the story, entitled "Girls (Scream) Aloud", had been published on a US website, British police carried out the investigation because the alleged author was identified as living in the UK. Although he had submitted the story under a pseudonym, he included an email address which was reportedly traced. Officers from Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Unit decided to take action over the story after consulting the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and on 25 September 2008 it was announced that the author, Darryn Walker, was to be prosecuted for the online publication of material that the police and the CPS believed was obscene. It was the first such prosecution for written material in nearly two decades, and was expected to have a significant impact on the future regulation of the Internet in the UK.
Walker appeared in court on 22 October 2008 to face charges of "publishing an obscene article contrary to Section 2(1) of the Obscene Publications Act 1959". He was granted unconditional bail, and his case was set for trial on 16 March 2009. However, at a directions hearing in January, the defendant made it known that given the seriousness of the case he would be represented by a QC (Queen’s Counsel), following which the Crown Prosecution Service gave notice of its intention to similarly employ a QC, and the trial date was put back to 29 June 2009, where the defendant was found not guilty, and cleared of all charges of obscenity.
On 5 December 2008, the IWF system started blacklisting a Wikipedia article covering the Scorpions' 1976 album Virgin Killer, and an image of its original LP cover art which appeared on that article. Users of some major ISPs, including BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media/Tesco.net, Be/O2, EasyNet/UK Online/Sky Broadband, PlusNet, Demon, and TalkTalk (Opal Telecom), were unable to access the filtered content. Additionally, a large number of UK Internet users were unable to edit Wikipedia pages anonymously. Although controversial, the album and image are still available, both through Internet shopping sites and from physical shops. The image had been reported to the IWF by a reader, and the IWF determined that it could be seen as potentially illegal. The IWF estimated the block affected 95% of British residential users. The IWF has since rescinded the block, issuing the following statement:
|“||[...] the image in question is potentially in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978. However, the IWF Board has today (9 December 2008) considered these findings and the contextual issues involved in this specific case and, in light of the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability, the decision has been taken to remove this webpage from our list.||”|
On 14 January 2009 some UK users reported that all of the 85 billion pages of the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) had been blocked, in spite of the fact that the IWF's policy is to try to only censor the exact webpage in question and not the whole domain. According to IWF chief executive Peter Robbins this happened due to a "technical hitch". Because the Internet Archive's web site contained URLs on the IWF's blacklist, requests sent there from the ISP Demon Internet carried a particular header, which clashed with the Internet Archive's internal mechanism to convert web links when serving archived versions of web pages. The actual blocked URL which had caused the incident never became publicly known.
In February 2009 a Yorkshire-based software developer lodged a formal complaint regarding the IWF status as a charity with the Charity Commission, in which he pointed out that "regulating the worst of the internet" was "not really a charitable purpose", and that the IWF existed mainly to serve the interests of ISPs subscribing to it rather than the public. An IWF spokesperson said that the IWF had attained charitable status in 2004 "in order to subject itself to more robust governance requirements and the higher levels of scrutiny and accountability which charity law, alongside company law, brings with it". The IWF is listed by fakecharities.org, "a directory of those so-called charities that receive substantial funding from either the UK or EU governments". It has also been termed a quango by critics, implying poor management and lack of accountability.
Following the IWF's blacklisting of the Wikipedia article, the organisation's operating habits came under scrutiny. J.R. Raphael of PC World stated that the incident had raised serious free-speech issues, and that it was alarming that one non-governmental organisation was ultimately acting as the "morality police" for about 95% of UK's Internet users. Frank Fisher of The Guardian criticized the IWF for secretiveness and lack of legal authority, among other things, and noted that the blacklist could contain anything and that the visitor of a blocked address may not know if their browsing is being censored.
The government believes that a self-regulatory system is the best solution, and the Metropolitan Police also believe that working with ISPs, rather than trying to force them via legislation, is the way forward. The IWF has a blacklist of URLs which is available to ISPs, but ISPs are not forced to subscribe to it. However, ISPs may feel inclined or even forced to join (and contribute) to the IWF's activities as a failure to do so may harm their reputation as responsible providers. Subscribing to the IWF may also be seen as a marketing tool by ISPs.
As a "self-appointed, self-regulated internet watchdog, which views user-submitted content and compiles a list of websites that it deems to contain illegal images" there have been questions raised regarding the legality of their viewing content that would normally constitute a criminal offense.
The IWF has been criticized for blacklisting legal content and for not telling websites that they are being blocked and also for not making their blocked website list public.
In addition to introducing performance problems the blacklisting of sites may be concealed by generic HTTP 404 "file not found" errors rather than a more appropriate HTTP 403 "forbidden" message; it should be noted, however, that the exact method of censorship is completely reliant on the implementing ISP; BT, for example, return 404 pages, whereas Demon return an honest message stating that, and why, the page is censored.
List of IWF filter servers on each internet provider network
By doing a traceroute to a particular website you can see the path it takes to see if it does go through the internet service providers invisible IWF filter. The following list will show the server to look for in the traceroute and be able to determine whether the website is blacklisted.
Virgin Media: wb7301a.network.virginmedia.net
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- Template:UK Parliament
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- Fakecharities.org IWF listing
- Independent' EU funded Quango 'blocks' Wiki
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- Wikimedia Foundation opposes action by IWF to blacklist encyclopedia article
- Lessons and questions for the IWF
- Internet Watch Foundation
- IWF Interview, April 2009 In depth interview with Sarah Robertson, IWF Director of Communications
- Chairing the IWF essay by Roger Darlington
- Fakecharities.org IWF listing