Internet Watch Foundation

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a nonprofit quasi-official body which flags certain content considered illegal in the UK and produces a blacklist (Child Abuse Image Content - CAIC list) used by ISPs to censor their services (see, for example, Cleanfeed)[1] and notifies UK police about material hosted in the UK and international agencies about internationally hosted material[2]. They also provide a list of relevant, up to date keywords often used by paedophiles to organisations such as search engines[3] and monitor Usenet for illegal content[4]. Many ISPs are members, some actually apply the feed.


The IWF was founded in 1996 by the Metropolitan Police and the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) as a result of negotiations to combat the publication of illegal child sexual abuse images on the internet while protecting the ISPs from being accused of publication offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978. The IWF's main activity is the operation of an online "hotline" for the reporting of such images and the publication of a blacklist of images used by ISPs to censor their services.[5]

Controversial Aspects


Many individuals and organisations are opposed to any form of censorship in principle - citing its likelihood to slowly creep to other areas and ambiguities for some types of content (if the Virgin Killer album cover falls foul of the regulations than why not classical paintings that display naked juveniles, for instance?)[6].

Other concerns related to the censorship aspect of the IWF include concerns over effectiveness and the potential negative side effects (including, but not limited to: overblocking; effects resulting from the routing of traffic via the ISP's proxy)[7][8]. Dr. Richard Clayton, of the University of Cambridge Department of Computer Science, pointed out to BBC journalist Rory Cellan-Jones:

"He told me that, if the aim was to stop people coming across these images by accident, then the system was a failure because that didn't happen anyway: 'This material tends to be held on paid-for sites or is held by people who don't publish it to the world because they don't want to get arrested.'"[9]

Sheffield University law professor Lilian Edwards made the following comment:

"The government now potentially possesses the power to exclude any kind of online content from the UK, without the notice of either the public or the courts... ...It's like knowing that Google Safe Search is on, but not being able to change your settings."[10]


ISPA have raised concerns over the costs of implementing blocking technology for some smaller ISPs[11].


The IWF is not a government body or law enforcement agency but a registered charity.[12] As such it has no special legal right to intentionally view child sexual abuse material - it is as illegal for them to view this material (necessary to do so they can assess it and add it to their blacklist) as it would be for you or I to intentionally view it. Rather it operates under a memorandum of understanding between the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in which the CPS agree not to prosecute the IWF, despite the illegality of their work. This memorandum of understanding also applies to IT professionals (e.g. web hosts) and others who may have to come into contact with such images for "legitimate purposes" (e.g. deletion, investigation) not already covered by the defence of "necessity for the purposes of the prevention, detection or investigation of crime, or for the purposes of criminal proceedings" in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.[13] When challenged about the legality of such an arrangement the Home Office were apparently clueless as to what the IWF's work involved and were unable to give a satisfactory answer.[14]


The IWF are not subject to any kind of parliamentary of judicial oversight. Whether or not material is deemed illegal and added to the blacklist is solely decided, in a closed and opaque process, by IWF employees. According to their own website the IWF "are accountable to the board of trustees, industry members and our stakeholders".[15] A list of the current IWF board members can be found on their website. Accountability to, and oversight from, industry members of the IWF is primarily through the three board members elected by the industry members. Currently these include employees of BT,[16] Telefonica UK[17] and YHGfL.[18] Accountability from "stakeholders" is not defined on their website; neither in terms of what that accountability is and how it's enacted nor who the stakeholders consist of. This lack of oversight is very disturbing as it effectively allows the IWF, and/or its individual employees, to decide what content can and can't be viewed by UK consumers with no due process. It's important to note that the legality of the materials added to the IWF's blacklist has NEVER been assessed by a court or other qualified and accountable legal body and there is nothing stopping legal material being included on the list, neither inadvertently nor deliberately. These criticisms have been well articulated in Wired magazine.[10]

Appeals Process

In the past the IWF has been criticised for lacking any form of appeals process or complaints procedure, and failure to notify a content owner that their content has been blocked (e.g. contacting the hosting company or WHOIS registration details for the website in question). See, for instance, this quote from Wikimedia General Counsel Mike Godwin:

"When we first protested the block, their response was, 'We've now conducted an appeals process on your behalf and you've lost the appeal.' When I asked who exactly represented the Wikimedia Foundation's side in that appeals process, they were silent."[10]

Indeed the only case to be brought before a court which was publicly acknowledged as being a result of the IWF's work (afaik) resulted in the defendant being acquitted as a result of the prosecution's failure to provide any evidence to the court after it became clear that the overwhelming evidence was in favour of the defendant.[19]

A number of other false positive incidents have occurred on the IWF blacklist, including:

  • The famous IWF/Wikipedia incident[20]
  • Technical errors in filter implementation at several ISPs resulted in the entire internet archive being unavailable after one or more URLs within it were added to the IWF blacklist[21]

Currently (February 2013) the IWF maintains two complaints/appeals procedures. A general complaints process exists for complaints that do not relate to appealing an assessment of content. These can be made by email to[22] A content assessment appeals process exists for appealing inclusion on the blacklist or receipt of a notice to take down. "Any party with a legitimate association with the content or a potential victim or the victim’s representative, hosting company, publisher or internet consumer who believes they are being prevented from accessing legal content" may lodge an appeal.

The process is flawed at this point though since no notification to content owners or consumers is given if a URL is included on the blacklist (and if it is blocked some ISPs will misleadingly serve an error page, such as a 404). Further if the content is blocked a consumer who has tried to access it has no way to assess whether or not they believe it to be legal and, hence, whether or not to lodge an appeal. In the event that an appellant disagrees with the outcome of an appeal the case will then be passed to "the relevant lead police agency" for further assessment. The police decision is considered final and there are no further avenues of appeal for an appellant (unless there exists some mechanism through which the issue could be forced before a court, for instance if a customer launched proceedings against their ISP for failing to provide their advertised service by refusing to serve the image). It should also be noted that the board can't directly engage in oversight/accountability of appeals since they are not "trained" to assess the content.[23]

Remit Creep

Initially the IWF only dealt with images of child sexual abuse and had no blacklist - merely operating as a notice and takedown organisation. The blacklist was first introduced in 2004 to combat material held outside of UK jurisdiction.[10]In 2007 their remit was expanded to include taking reports of "extreme" pornography (although this isn't added to the blacklist, it is used to attempt to attain removal of the material)[24] and it was expanded again in 2009 to cover non-photographic images of child sexual abuse.[25]

However in 2011 the reverse happened when material relating to incitement of racial hatred was removed from the IWF's remit and moved to a new reporting website [1].[26]

Keith Mitchell, former head of LINX, notes that:

"There has been visible mission creep. Various additions to the IWF's remit have occurred, increasingly without consideration of their technical effectiveness or practicality. Most notable has been the introduction of a blacklist."[10]

In the December 2008 censorship of Wikipedia, IWF members BT did not censor the page at first, but did after a couple of days.

IWF feed

ISPs who subscribe

An up to date version of the following list can be found on the IWF Website

Internet Service Providers

  • BT
    • Unclear as to whether this includes ISPs who purchase bandwidth from BT Wholesale
  • Claranet
  • East of England Broadband Network
  • Easynet
  • Exa Networks
  • Karoo
  • KCOM
  • Madasafish
  • Namesco
  • NDO
  • O2
    • And hence BE?
  • Orange
  • Plusnet
  • Research Machines
  • SimplyNames
  • Sky
  • Talk Internet
  • TalkTalk
  • Tesco
  • The Cloud
  • Thus
  • UK Online
  • Virgin Media
  • Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning

Mobile Operators

(presumably this also applies to any MVNOs (e.g. Tesco Mobile) that operate on the above networks)

Search and Content Providers

Filtering Companies


  • Cricket Communications
  • Dhiraagu
  • Meteor
  • MTN Group

ISPs who do not subscribe

  • A&A (terms and conditions)[6]
  • Zen Internet (report on mailing list by Voxra Andersen: "We're not members, and have no intention of becoming one - we also don't 'shape' traffic in any way, shape or form"). (n.b. while Zen are not listed as an IWF URL list recipient they are listed as a financially contributing member)[27]

External links


  1. IWF Facilitation of the Blocking Initiative | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  2. Removal of Criminal Online Content | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  3. Keywords | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  4. Newsgroups | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  5. IWF History | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Andrews & Arnold Ltd - News - Censorship
  7. Study: Internet Blocking - Balancing cybercrime responses in democratic societies - prepared for the Open Society Institute
  8. Child Abuse images and Cleanfeeds: Assessing Internet Blocking Systems - T. J. McIntyre, University College Dublin
  9. BBC - Can we block child abuse sites?
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Wired UK magazine on The Internet Watch Foundation - the hidden censors of your internet (Wired UK)
  11. Vast Majority of Consumer ISPs Employ IWF Blocking List >> Press Releases | The Internet Services Providers Association
  12. Charity Information and Donations | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  13. Memorandum of Understanding Between Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) concerning Section 46 Sexual Offences Act 2003
  14. Home Office clueless over its own anti-child porn measures | Expert Reviews
  15. Internet Watch Foundation Accountability | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  16. Brian Webb | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  17. Jonny Shipp | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  18. Andrew Yoward | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  19. BBC NEWS | England | Tyne | Man cleared over Girls Aloud blog
  20. Internet Watch Foundation and Wikipedia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. IWF confirms Wayback Machine porn blacklisting * The Register
  22. General Complaints Process | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  23. Content Assessment Appeal Process | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  24. Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008: Section 63 | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  25. Coroners and Justice Act 2009 | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  26. Incitement to racial hatred removed from IWF’s remit
  27. Current Members | Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)