Life Just Bounces don't you get worried at all. (A weblog of music and otrogenerica)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Joe McCarthy meets the Brass Eye paedophile special

A shady self-appointed group of six censorious zealots are trying to prevent you from seeing anything on the internet that THEY don't like. What's more, anyone with access to an internet connection (though critical thinking skills and a brain are not deemed necessary) can report any website they like to this unelected, unaccountable Ministry of Truth and they will zap it.

Yesterday, the intervention of this body of six individuals, the Internet Watch Foundation or IWF (so far, so Orwellian), over a 30-year-old album cover by naff German hard rock group The Scorpions, left (warning: potentially NSFW) the album's Wikipedia article and corresponding image page blocked and 95% of the United Kingdom (warning: also has the image) completely unable to edit the encyclopaedia. The rationale for this block was that the IWF deemed the image to be "potentially illegal".

The problem with this reason is, virtually anything you can name is "potentially" illegal. Cars. Pieces of wood. Icicles. A leg of lamb when wielded (in)correctly. Steak knives. Prescription medicine. Any electrical equipment. And so on. The category of things that are "potentially illegal" is either based on such skewed semantics as to be unworkable, or so broad as to be completely nonsensical.

Anyhow, the image isn't illegal. Not even the IWF assert that it actually is, not to mention any credible sources. It has never been banned. The album, and its cover, are still freely available on Multiple copies are two clicks away, by simply typing "Virgin Killer" into Google Image. The cover is on the band's website. It was reissued uncensored as part of the In Trance/Virgin Killer collector's edition box set in 2004, with no fuss from anyone. It is regularly reprinted in rock books and encyclopaedias, and even appears in many an online article, ironically, on the topic of Worst Ever Album Covers. And presumably, at least some people bought it when it came out and at least some of those still have it, so there are actual real-world tangible copies going about in 12" vinyl and CD sleeve formats in attics and the backrooms of second-hand record shops the country over.

In short, while the image is crass and in poor taste (then-guitarist Uli Jon Roth now concurs, regretting the album cover), it has never been deemed even remotely close to any of the five categories of child pornography in the UK.

(Incidentally, the IWF is also keen to eliminate the actual term "child pornography" in favour of "child sexual abuse images", on the basis that the inclusion of the word "pornography" in the former term somehow legitimises CP images. Erm, what? Since when has a reference to pornography conferred respectability on anything? If that were the case, deeming something to be CP would be enough to placate the rabid morons of the News of the Screws/Scum reader ilk, and not precisely the other way around. Dunno what any other linguists reckon of the IWF's argument here, but as a holder of an MA (Hons) in English, i think it makes about as much sense as eating your own shoes.)

The point of the image's widespread availability elsewhere, both on the web and in meatspace, was put to IWF spokeswoman Sarah Robertson by Jim Naughtie on yesterday's Today programme, where their unconvincing defence was "oh, well no-one reported any of the other sites, just Wikipedia". Hmm. Does that sound like a system that could be open to... i don't know... abuse, at all? Their description of the decision elsewhere as "pragmatic", as noted by WP spokesman David Gerard, seems to basically translate as "it's easier to go after Wikipedia than Amazon as they are a user-funded educational charity and not a corporate behemoth with a phalanx of lawyers that would put Monty Burns to shame".

Meanwhile, thanks to the Streisand effect, page views for Virgin Killer went from less than 1,000 a day in early December to over 126,000 on December 7. The Scorpions' band page went up sixfold. No doubt the lion's share of those 126,000 hits were from people who had never heard of Virgin Killer, or maybe even The Scorpions, before the controversy. Heartening proof of the law of unintended consequences, but something of an own goal, one might think, for an organisation trying to limit the spread of images they deem objectionable. In fact, pleasingly, two Australian ISPs have apparently since opted out of content-filtering because of the pig-eared fiasco this has become.

Anyway, watch out for this, and be prepared for what these clowns might try to nuke next. (Indeed, the dependable wags over at 4chan have already started a contest among themselves to determine the most innocuous thing they can get the IWF to block). The law they tried to break Wikipedia with only applies to "photographs and pseudo-photographs", so Michelangelo's David and Lolita are safe (for the moment, presumably until someone decides they "potentially" aren't). But Blind Faith might not be. Nor might Pretty Baby. Nevermind? Kids? Houses of the Holy? The first Bow Wow Wow album? Hard Candy? Thirteen? The original cover of Yesterday and Today? Quoting J Biafra, "where do ya draw the line?"

It'd be nice to wake up just one morning in the UK these days without having to seethe at another news item on either more hysterical "will-somebody-think-of-the-CHIL-dren!" bollocks or another attempt to curtail our civil liberties by some unaccountable malcontents.

But until then, beware...