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Censorship and Wikipedia—An Instructive Tale
by
Posted On December 18, 2008
What if, one fine morning, you went to your favorite Wikipedia page only to see a "404 page not found" error message? Even more puzzling, your colleagues in other countries reported no problems with accessing the page. Then, you discovered that you couldn’t edit any Wikipedia entry. All the co-editors in your country had also been shut out of Wikipedia, but those in other countries still had full editing capabilities. What would you think? Your repressive government had blocked entry? Wikipedia had succumbed to pressure from a hostile regime? There’s a conspiracy afoot?

The above scenario is real. It happened, not in China, Iran, or Syria (where Wikipedia says censorship has occurred), but in the U.K. in early December. Ironically, the story hit just after the Online Information conference (www.online-information.co.uk) in London ended, which last year featured Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales as its keynote speaker. A few days earlier and this censorship of Wikipedia would have been the talk of the show. As it was, most information professionals—except those in the U.K.—were unaware of what was going on.

What Was Censored and Who Censored It

The Wikipedia page in question was about an album called Virgin Killer, which was released by the German band The Scorpions in 1976. The original cover art was a photograph of a young, naked girl, and the reproduction of that cover on the Wikipedia page spurred this most recent uproar. After 30-plus years, you’d think this particularly controversy had run its course—and make no mistake about it, the album-cover art was highly controversial at the time. The Scorpions created an alternative cover (simply showing the band members) to placate the countries that refused to allow the album to be displayed (or sold) within their borders.

In the U.K., the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF; www.iwf.org.uk) is a nongovernmental, self-regulatory, registered charity, formed in 1996, that monitors potentially illegal content on the internet with a particular focus on child abuse. The IWF helps "internet service providers and hosting companies to combat abuse of their networks through our national ‘notice and take-down’ service. …" It is particularly concerned about "images of child sexual abuse hosted anywhere in the world, criminally obscene content hosted in the UK, [and] incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK."

Trying to Kill the Virgin Killer Page

In the case of Virgin Killer, someone reported the Wikipedia page to the IWF on Dec. 4, 2008, which responded with a "notice and take-down" appeal to Wikipedia. Because most ISPs in the U.K. participate in the IWF’s efforts, the page was immediately blocked in that country. If you were in the U.K., you received the 404 error message, although, as one U.K. colleague of mine told me, the cached version was still available. Depending on how you entered the search term, you could also avoid the 404 error and go straight to the Virgin Killer page.

The unintended consequence of blacklisting the page was the "disenfranchisement" of editors in the U.K. The six main U.K. ISPs routed Wikipedia traffic through a transparent proxy server, making it impossible for Wikipedia to distinguish one individual from another. This triggered Wikipedia’s protection mechanisms that keep abusive editing away from the encyclopedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, issued a press release on Dec. 7, 2008, that said the "[c]ensorship in the United Kingdom disenfranchises tens of thousands of Wikipedia editors" (http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Press_releases/Censorship_of_WP_in_the_UK_Dec_2008). On a Q&A page linked to from the press release, Wikimedia Foundation described itself as "baffled" by the IWF action, saying, "we are particularly displeased that the IWF chose to censor not solely the image, but also the explanatory article text which described and contextualized the controversy surrounding the image, in a neutral and educational fashion." It also noted that the same image is available on Amazon, which did not receive any take-down notice.

Stung by Scorpions

The IWF initially stood by its decision. However, the story gained traction, with U.K. news outlets, from the BBC to The Guardian, and influential bloggers from around the world weighing in on the side of Wikipedia. Author and blogger (and former Electronic Frontier Foundation employee) Cory Doctorow (www.boingboing.net/2008/12/07/how-the-great-firewa.html) commented that "a third party now monitors every request made to Wikipedia from the six ISPs that participate in the Great Firewall of Britain." Doctorow’s new book, Little Brother, had its U.K. debut on Dec. 1, with a book signing at London’s Lonely Planet bookstore. Had the IWF’s censorship of Wikipedia been in force then, I’m guessing the line to buy a signed copy of the book would have been considerably longer.

Following such negative press, the IWF backed down and restored access on Dec. 9. It also noted that the controversy spawned its own unintended consequences—vastly more page views than before the censorship occurred. Wikipedia reports that the Virgin Killer page had fewer than 1,000 views prior to Dec. 4, but it hit 126,000 page views on Dec. 7 and 371,000 views on Dec. 8.

Looking at the discussion section of the Virgin Killer page, it is clear that an intense internal debate about including the cover image raged long before the IWF noticed it was there. Even the FBI in the U.S. had looked at the page in May 2008, but the bureau decided it was not illegal.

When information professionals think of censorship of information on the internet, they generally don’t think of the U.K. as a hotbed of censorship—and they don’t consider Wikipedia a source of child pornography. Thus, this episode is instructive in challenging some of our assumptions.

For those unfamiliar with the Scorpions’ album, the "virgin killer" of the title track is time. It’s time that steals our innocence and naivete. It’s somewhat amazing that time has not erased the controversy surrounding the album’s cover art.


Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search & Discovery.

Email Marydee Ojala
Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Gregory Kohs12/19/2008 11:26:36 AM

You say, "ISPs routed Wikipedia traffic through a transparent proxy server, making it impossible for Wikipedia to distinguish one individual from another. This triggered Wikipedia’s protection mechanisms that keep abusive editing away from the encyclopedia."

That's an interestingly bland way of saying, "Wikipedia's intractable policy of censoring unwelcome editors by blocking IP addresses, and sometimes entire range blocks, led administrators to notice that they were blocking other editors in the process."

Every day, IPs are blocked for "abusive editing" that are not being abusive at all. The media can't fathom this, because they think that Wikipedia is all sunshine, and unicorns, and fairies. It's not, folks.

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