Internet filter stuff-up cuts off Wikipedia

Want proof that Internet blacklists can have an impact much wider than expected? Look no further than the UK where an attempt to block just one image resulted in people being unable to edit the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation which funds the popular reference site was forced to respond after it became clear that a single article about a 1976 heavy metal album by the Scorpions Virgin Killer (note: NSFW link) had been placed on the blacklist maintained by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) with unexpectedly broad consequences.

The article was blocked because it contained a copy of the controversial original cover art which features a naked prepubescent girl. Using the IWF blocking list is not compulsory but it has been almost universally adopted by most UK ISPs offering home Internet access.

In the assessment of the IWF the image was “potentially illegal” although it remains accessible on numerous other sites. “We believe it’s worth noting that the image is currently visible on Amazon where the album can be freely purchased by UK residents” the Wikimedia Foundation’s general counsel Mike Godwin noted. Wikipedia also noted that the article included a discussion of the controversy surrounding the image.

In any event the decision had a much broader impact than just blocking that particular article. Anonymous editing of Wikipedia articles has also become impossible because of the way the block is implemented. “Once Wikipedia was added to the IWF blacklist access to Wikipedia through participating UK-based ISPs began being routed through a transparent proxy server which means that different internet users in the UK could then no longer be distinguished from each other by IP address” explains a Q&A document on the site. “As a consequence of all UK visitors now appearing indistinguishable to Wikipedia Wikipedia’s protective mechanisms against abusive editing are inevitably triggered and all UK visitors from blacklist-affected ISPs are indiscriminately unable to edit Wikipedia.”

Registered users can make edits but one of Wikipedia’s core principles is that registration is not required to edit most articles. Some UK Wikipedia users have also referred to performance problems accessing the site.

Broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy has referred to the UK experience when talking about the importance of establishing a blacklist though its optional nature hasn’t come up for reference quite as often. Hopefully ruining Wikipedia is another element he won’t be looking to replicate too closely.