Dixon of dot com

The Internet Watch Foundation says it 'supports free speech' - so what about the thousands of pages it removes from the web each year?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘We are not in the business of censorship. Our aim is to help remove illegal material from the net – material which would be just as illegal in a book or magazine as it would be online.’

Ruth Dixon, assistant chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) (1), wants to make clear that she is no old-fashioned Mary Whitehouse, with blue rinse, blue pen and a mission to protect the nation from the corrupting influence of sex, guns and f-words. ‘We don’t make judgements on what people should look at on the net’, she says, ‘except those judgements already laid down in law, which apply to the whole of society’.

Dixon is keen to talk up the positive sides to surfing the web, particularly for children – marking her out from hotheaded censors of yesteryear who saw all modern forms of communication as wicked, particularly for children. The IWF is an ‘independent organisation’ with ‘no statutory powers’, which aims to ‘hinder the use of the internet to transmit illegal material, especially child pornography’. Okay. But what about the backing it receives from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and the police? As for no powers, what about the fact that of the 40 000 ‘items’ reported to the IWF from 1996 to 1999, it ‘advised’ internet service providers to remove 23 292 (which they duly did) with no recourse to a court of law? (2) For an organisation not in the ‘business of censorship’, the IWF seems to have powers that Mary Whitehouse would have murdered for.

‘The thing is, we don’t go on to the web and take material off’, says Dixon. ‘We don’t have the statutory powers to do that. We simply advise internet service providers (ISPs) about problematic material on the sites that they host and suggest they remove it.’ This may sound like a straightforward ‘advisory’ relationship, but in reality ISPs consistently comply with the IWF’s removal instructions. Ninety-six percent of material removed from the net never makes it to court to be judged on its legality or otherwise: it is simply removed by the ISP concerned on the advice of the IWF. Who needs statutory powers when a friendly email to an ISP can get websites removed at the touch of a button?

But Dixon is adamant that she is ‘not interested in censorship’ and is ‘for free speech’. She quotes the IWF’s industry paper R-3 Safety Net: ‘The issue addressed has nothing to do with censorship of legal material or free speech. The issue is how to deal with material or activity which society, through democratic process, has deemed to be unacceptable in law….We support the internet’s traditions of diversity and free speech.’ (3) Leaving aside the fact that removing material because it is deemed unacceptable by law is still censorship, it sounds like the lady protests too much. It is surely only in the world of the internet, where nonsense so often masquerades as expertise, that a body responsible for removing thousands of web pages every year could pose as a supporter of free speech.

The truth is that the regulation of the net in Britain began with the establishment of the IWF in September 1996. Founded by Peter Dawe, former chairman of Pipex Internet, the IWF aimed to combat the availability of child pornography by setting up a reporting hotline that worried surfers could phone, and through content filtering, where net-users could install software that would filter out offensive material. From the outset the IWF depicted the net as a potentially dangerous place in need of regulation – yes, the web is good and educational for children, so long as they don’t stumble across ‘One woman and her dog’; yes, the web is open and diverse, except for all those nasty Nazi sites telling us to hate immigrants. The image was of a new, groundbreaking method of communication – but where danger was potentially just a hyperlink away.

Rather than challenging this degraded depiction of the net, internet service providers backed up the idea that their medium was a minefield of gratuitous and offensive material. Before long the IWF, with the backing of the government and the police, had set up an informal network of ‘concerned’ members of the industry, keen to clean up the web and make it a safer place for children, families and those who want to use it for educational purposes – a network which is all the more effective for not having to bother with ‘statutory powers’ or the tiresome job of having an open debate or taking people to court. Dixon is right – this is not old-fashioned censorship. It is a new etiquette, where the aim is to protect individuals from offence (rather than protecting morals from corruption) and where the emphasis is on quickly and efficiently removing material. The result is arguably a far more effective form of censorship than anything that went before.

Dixon sticks with the argument that the IWF’s focus is on ‘illegal material that society has already said is unacceptable’, asking ‘why should the net be treated differently?’. But even this is disingenuous – later in our conversation she says that ‘of course the IWF is interested in more than child pornography’, listing other types of pornography and the possibility that the IWF will extend its remit to cover the removal of ‘hate speech and gratuitous violence’. It seems the IWF has got a taste for this ‘free speech’ thing.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Censorware: be aware by Alan Docherty

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) See the Internet Watch Foundation website

(2) See United Kingdom Section of Regulation of Child Pornography on the Net, by Y Akdeniz (1999)

(3) Read the IWF’s R3 Safety-Net here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today