The banning of a Wikipedia page by a U.K. Internet watchdog is raising tough questions over how far online censorship should go -- and the decisions made in the coming days could prove crucial to how we balance free speech with content regulation in the future.
The Internet Watch Foundation -- a nonprofit, nongovernment-affiliated organization -- added the Wikipedia page for the Scorpions' 1976 album "Virgin Killer" onto its blacklist Friday. The IWF's concern comes over the image on the album's original cover, which shows a young girl completely nude. (A cracked glass effect obscures a direct view of her genital area.) Someone had reported the image as inappropriate through the IWF's online submission tool, the organization says, and its internal assessment found the photo to be "a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18."
The IWF's blacklist is used by the vast majority of British Internet service providers to maintain decency standards for their subscribers. As a result of the ban, affected U.K. Internet users are unable to view the page or access Wikipedia's article editing function.
Here's where things get tricky: The image, by all accounts, has never been flagged as illegal. The FBI did reportedly launch an investigation this past May, but no resulting decision has been announced. If you read over the legal definition of "child pornography," you can see where this image might fall outside of its lines.
That's the main complaint of those who oppose the IWF's ban -- the idea that this image may be deemed "distasteful" by many people, but as long as it's not illegal, a self-governing group has no right to impose its own moral assessment onto millions of others. The image is also printed in books accessible in libraries, a spokesperson for Wikipedia's U.K.-based volunteers pointed out to the BBC.
"Are the police going to go into those libraries and rip out the offending page?" he asks.
The IWF ultimately acts as the morality police for about 95 percent of the U.K.'s Internet users, and the fact that one nongovernment company has so much control over what's decent and what isn't is a bit alarming. Where does the U.K. government stand on all of this? Should its opinion count?
The questions reach further than this single image on this specific Wikipedia page. If an independent group such as the IWF can make its own assessments as to the appropriateness of content, many are asking, where do we draw the line? A complaint has already been filed with the IWF against Amazon for hosting the album's image on its store pages. Should Internet users in the U.K. be banned from accessing Amazon, too? Does a group of self-appointed moral judges have the right to make that call? And how far do we take it -- should we block other sites like, say, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, since one could pull up the image there as well?
Then you can consider the even broader implications: What other content may be deemed "immoral," if we're willing to grant the ability to make that judgment to nongovernment organizations? Even if you agree that this particular image is offensive, so long as it is legal, are you willing to open that door?
Don't get caught in the "not my problem" line of thinking, either -- this model of private censorship could easily be exported to the U.S. In fact, we've already seen a taste of it. Clear Channel faced claims of banning "offensive" songs shortly after 9/11, and Verizon blocked an activist group from sending text messages over its network late last year. Verizon said the content, which focused on the issue of abortion, could be considered "controversial or unsavory."
It's a potentially slippery slope, and one reminiscent of other battles as to the appropriateness of various content. Just this month, a representative from The Family Foundation -- a nonprofit group from Virginia -- put out a statement suggesting "porn has no place in civil society."
"Somehow we've been conditioned to believe that pornography is a matter of free speech, personal freedom and privacy and that any restrictions would undo the First Amendment," the statement says.
Regardless of your feelings about the image on the Scorpions' album cover, is this group's stance any different than the IWF's on its most basic operating level? Each organization is asserting its own right, outside of the law, to determine what legally acceptable content you should or should not be allowed to see. The IWF just presently has the power to enact its decisions, while The Family Foundation does not.
To be clear, I'm by no means suggesting an image of a young girl nude is comparable to adult pornography. I'm not even saying that the image of the young girl should necessarily be legal. I'm just saying that I'm in no position to make that determination -- and, so long as the image is legal, I'm in no position to keep you from looking at a Web site about it. And I'm not sure if a group like the IWF should be, either.
These are tough questions, and there may not be any definitively correct answers. I sure don't have them. But there's no doubt an important debate brewing here that's far bigger than this one case -- and everyone who uses the Internet has reason to be invested in its outcome.