Blown To Bits

Privatized Censorship

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

There has been a flurry of activity the last few days about a particular image on Wikipedia. I had intended to blog it sooner, and now it has — sort of — resolved itself. But there is a larger lesson that remains important.

The image was on the cover of an album called Virgin Killer, by the band Scorpion. The album was released more than 30 years ago. The cover shows a naked 11-year-old girl with an image of glass, cracked in a star pattern, strategically covering her genitals. Or perhaps, positioned so as to draw the eye to that part of her body. The cover was naughty enough that the music publisher changed the cover in many markets, but apparently no one has ever labeled it illegal child pornography, until this week.

In the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation blacklisted the Wikipedia page that discusses the album, which includes an image of the cover. Now the IWF is not a government organization, but the major ISPs rely on it voluntarily to identify pages and sites containing illegal child pornography. Because of some technicalities that are well explained here, that led to Wikipedia being uneditable from most computers in the UK. There was a furor, the Wikipedia folks refused to remove the image. Today the IWF backed down and unblocked the Wikipedia page, explaining that the image had been around like forever, and more people were viewing it because the IWF had censored it than ever would have viewed it otherwise.

Now there is a lot to be said about this, about how hard it is to censor the Internet and how delicately the whole thing is actually held together. But the most interesting observation is the one Chris Soghoian makes in this editorial. The U.S. has an agency much like the IWF — it’s called¬†The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). That’s the place U.S. ISPs go to get a list of objectionable web sites.

What’s odd about both the IWF and NCMEC is that they are agents of the criminal justice system that operate outside the government. That means their decisions can’t be appealed (though it looks like Wikipedia found some way to appeal the IWF decision). And their procedures can be kept secret — for example, NCMEC is immune from U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

So Chris states in his editorial’s title: It’s time for a child porn czar. Oh god, thought I; another federal bureaucracy. But he’s right, not because it’s good to create bureaucracies, but because we already have one, and it’s accountable to no one. If this censorship function is going to take place, at the request of the U.S. government, then let’s make it part of the government so we can know what it does.

P.S. The Virgin Killer album cover is easy to find; Google will take you to it immediately. I owe it to you to report that someone who should know thinks it really does qualify as child pornography under U.S. law, and therefore illegal to possess, even though in more than 30 years that’s never been charged by any authority. (In addition to which, you may well not like it.)

7 Responses to “Privatized Censorship”

  1. Ian Nock Says:

    Wikipedia did not find a way to appeal it, the press buzz generated by the filtering and its impact in so many areas made the IWF look a bit dumb and useless and therefore the IWF just backed down. The fact that the image is available so widely online and off, and has never been marked as illegal before (although it is nasty and tasteless in my view) raised questions about the IWF’s real effectiveness. I firmly believe there will be more challenges in the future because of this as the IWF’s mechanism is not very effective as it covers only whole sites rather than individual elements, as well as the fact that it covers only text and still images. The growth in user generated content and IPTV services across the internet means that similar filtering of video is not happening and is in fact very difficult, as briefly discussed on my other blog at This does not even cover how a seven person team of people at the IWF can effectively determine the filter for the entire Internet of text, images and video!

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Do you have any idea what the mechanism was? Was the IWF barraged with complaining emails, or did someone inside the office just read some of the press and decide they’d made a mistake? It’s an unusual bureaucracy that would change its mind because it realized that it looked dumb!

  3. lorrie Says:

    im not really qualified to comment on any of this but i just wanted to point out that just because an image is older than the laws against it doesnt give it an exemption. child porn is a HUGE issue, and child sex offenders are an even bigger one. personally i wouldnt want to see any changes to the IWF in terms of making it a government agency since that would obviously curtail any progress they are already making, if any. if anything we should be seeking more funding options for organizations like this.
    they have only 7 people? just, wow. finding and tagging illegal images has got to be just a little bit challenging for them dont you think? im not sure that they looked “dumb” in doing what they did, in fact putting it back kinda points to an UNbeauricratic mentality yes?
    i dont think they would start calling the cover of nirvana’s nevermind child porn since its a little more well known than a 30 yr old scorpian cover. i wouldnt even be able to identify a current scorpian album (are they still around?)
    i think (generally) that when it comes to children i couldnt care less about freedom of speech/press/etc. referance NAMBLA……

  4. Harry Lewis Says:

    You are right that it makes no sense for the same image to be considered child porn or not, depending on how long it’s been around. But the problem is that there is no way to know what “they” would call child porn (whether “they” are the UK or US group that makes up these lists). Some quite serious people in the 02138 zip code have opined that the Scorpion cover really would qualify as child porn. Another quipped that it was saved from prosecution by being so bad musically that it was never widely circulated. It’s arguably more “lascivious” in its pose than the Nirvana cover you mention, and the child is older. Transparency is needed exactly so there can be public understanding and buy-in.

  5. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » When Should the State Have Your Passwords? Says:

    […] have sacrificed his right to privacy. But the category is actually fairly squishy. Recall the way UK censors labeled a ’70s LP album cover as “child pornography,”¬†and the fact that until yesterday a woman could be arrested in Massachusetts for indecent exposure […]

  6. Emmanuel Lazaridis Says:

    Given the increasing regulatory and investigative powers of the NCMEC (USA) under federal law, it is no longer clear whether or not the FOIA applies to NCMEC (USA) records. We are about to find out. I am right now bringing a case against the NCMEC (USA) in federal court for access to records under the FOIA and, failing that, for discovery under 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a).

    If anyone wishes to contribute an argument in favor of the notion that NCMEC (USA) records should fall under the FOIA, now is the time to do so. The case is no. 1177 of 2009 in the District of Columbia.

    Messages intended for me may be sent to the secretariat. Please indicate in the caption of your mail that its contents should be forwarded to me. Thank you.

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