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back to article IWF chief: We don't need crusaders

Peter Robbins, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) comes across as a genial politician – and a through-and-through pragmatist. He is in no way the moralising, censorious villain that some of the internet’s more Libertarian anti-censorship lobby would make him out to be. For all the bonhomie, there is a …

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WTF?

Huh?

"...The number of URL’s on the IWF blocklist – c. 500 - is close to an all-time low..."

I don't get it. Aren't we being told almost daily that the interwebs is awash with 'commercial CP' created by large organised 'networks' of kiddy fiddlers responsible for a $multi-billion global 'industry' in CP..? I'm sure I read that somewhere...

Either the IWF aren't taking things very seriously or somebody's been telling a few porkies...

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Anonymous Coward

Self dillusion

Every censor is always right in their own minds. We only become aware of how wrong they are when they block Wikipedia or something else so blindingly wrong that it becomes public. Or like Australia, when the list becomes available and it's clearly a moral agenda not just a legal one.

And the nature of censorship is it creeps, slowly steadily, the more that is censored, the more there is to fear, the more pressure to censor.

I could argue that site X should not be censored, but you could never see it and judge for yourself and I would be labelled a threat to society for suggesting site X is not illegal. Thus there is no counter pressure against censorship.

This cannot end well.

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WTF?

What?!? Is This Monkey Dust?

"However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency. He cites a recent case where pictures were taken of children clothed and with parents present."

What?!?

Does this mean what it sounds like? That people are getting convicted of possessing "indecent" images of children that aren't even indecent?

Isn't that supposed to be the stuff of hysterical exaggeration? And yet, from what the IWF Chief Executive allegedly pointed out, it's actually happening.

It's like Monkey Dust for real.

(Any chance we could have a Paedofinder General icon, please?)

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@ sefl dillusion (sic) AC

Yeah, but he's just censoring child porn. Are you suggesting it shouldn't be censored? Good luck getting that campaign started.

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Anonymous Coward

Observations

The article talks of why a policeman and not a lawyer, or child protection specialist.

Here's an idea - why not a technologist? a civil liberties expert? Effectively, whilst he talks of impartiality he is inherently not impartial because he sides with the view that censorship is to some extent acceptable and that censorship is a way of upholding the law. This is a fallacy, whether the IWF blocks or not does not change the legality of looking at child porn, nor does it prevent people intentionally looking for it, nor does it prevent people accidently stumbling upon it (else the IWF wouldn't need a "report a link" option on their website).

What censorship does do however, is open the door for abuse, or mistakes.

His stubborn view that the IWF was right in the Scorpion's scandal but simultaneous acceptance that in hindsight they'd have done things differently is contradictory because that means that they basically accept that they didn't handle the situation properly, similarly the acceptance and realisation that context involves more than their original narrow perception of what context is demonstrates that he's wrong to suggest they did the right thing. Effectively he's using a tactic of political double speak to try and save face for a severe screw up. There is also no mention of the censorship problems caused to the internet archive by the IWF's list a few months afterwards either.

Ultimately then what we have is a guy who is inherently pro-censorship, and who believes censorship somehow solves a problem, someone who accepts that his organisation did wrong without being willing to explicitly admit that.

The second from last paragraph was quite telling - that the number of blocked URLs was near an all time low, this is not evidence that censorship is working, on the contrary, it's merely evidence that the IWF's censorship based approach has been easily circumvented and illegal material is being downloaded from USENET or traded via P2P, IRC or VPNs instead.

You can't censor the internet, it will always find a way. The IWF is still a waste of money, money that would be far better spent on actual policing resources to hit child abuse at the source and actually save some real children from said abuse. Censorship does not help save a single child.

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Megaphone

do no wrong

""My team were right to block it", Robbins asserts: "and the Board were correct in their decision to unblock it". Two p’s this time: pragmatist and politician.

"However", he goes on: "the IWF has learnt from that incident. Context includes not just how the picture is used, but how it is viewed by the world in general. More investigation would happen if such a picture came up now: with hindsight, if the same circumstance was repeated, we probably would not block it"."

His team did A, and that was right. Then the board undid A, but that was also right. And if his team came across it again, they would now not do A, and that would also be right.

Oh what bliss it must be to live in quangoland, and be completely untethered from the sort of need for moral consistency that the rest of us live with in order to function usefully in society. I imagine that the rationalisation includes lots of words like "remit" and "guidelines", but the fact remains that in the real world, it is either right to suppress an image or it isn't. This picture and its artistic context are decades old - there aren't any changing circumstances involved.

"More investigation would happen if such a picture came up now". What sort of investigation, exactly? Did they miss the fact that it was the cover of an album of a reasonably well-known artistic group last time around, and this time they'd glance downwards to read the Wikipedia infobox?

What pointless bollocks.

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Anonymous Coward

Well timed

Interesting to see this, the day after it was announced by CEOP/BBC that all the CP was now on limewire and tor. Makes URL blocking kinda useless?

Of course I don't condone child abuse, but the IWF make me worried when things like this slip out:

"There is enough serious child sexual abuse material out there to keep us very busy."

coupled with:

"However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency. He cites a recent case where pictures were taken of children clothed and with parents present."

Prosecuting that sounds less like common sense and more like a moral agenda. It sounds as bad as minors in the US being dubbed paedophiles for sexting.

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WTF?

Truly bizarre....

"However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency. He cites a recent case where pictures were taken of children clothed and with parents present."

Maybe I'm missing something here, but how can someone be prosecuted solely on the basis of photos of this type? If they did something else that was illegal, and the photos were simply found during the investigation but were irrelevant, then why mention them?

Don't understand!

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Big Brother

In safe hands - for now

He does actually seem as the right man for the job - so expect Mandelson to be drooling over getting one of his henchmen in there.

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Silver badge

OK for now...

The interview suggests they are acting sensibly, and that the current chief has his head screwed on right. But there are two worrying aspects:

The first is who will follow him? Will they be appointed to do the stated job, or as a political post? Recent history of this gov is not encouraging.

The second is the more fundamental issue of who watches them. No doubt there is horrible stuff out there, and baning that is justifiable in most people's minds. But what the scorpions album showed, and what the leaked Australian list showed, is this can be "corrupted" by either an over-zealous interpretation of the law (or maybe a dumb writing of it?), or the more insidious creep of political/religious/etc blocking that is not in the original remit.

I personally do not want to be checking the list, as I suspect a lot of it is nasty, but there needs to be some degree of outside monitoring of this so we can sleep easily knowing that they do what it said on the tin.

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Anonymous Coward

Why the secracy?

When the IWF blocks something, people see an obscure error message. The IWF could be blocking most criticism of the IWF, and we would never know. When the IWF block something, I want to see a picture or some text that boldly states that the IWF are responsible for blocking access to a particular site or image. While they continue to hide their activities, I will assume that they are up to something dishonest.

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Speaking your mind

The fact that so many commentators feel the need to post under the 'AC' label should tell you something about how people are scared about voicing criticism of the government here in the UK.

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FAIL

Tame

Nice rigorous line of questioning you've got there. The only thing that strikes me as warm, cuddly and innocent in this article is the reporters apparent predisposition towards the subject.

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This post has been deleted by its author

Anonymous Coward

RE: @secracy

WTF are you on about AC to avoid being DDoS'd?

The only people who could see your IP assuming they even log it is The Register but who can hence see it whether you tick AC or not. Please tell me how the hell you think anyone is going to be able to DDoS you whether you post anonymous or with some username?

Besides, if you think someone is DDoS'ing you the chances are you're both paranoid and severely overestimate how much you actually matter in the world, the fact is you're almost certainly not someone important enough to be worth DDoSing.

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Thumb Down

@AC, 13:33

Speaking as a customer for one of the "Selfish ISPs", I think you're talking crap - complete crap.

ISPs have claimed (correctly or not) that their contract with the IWF prohibited them from providing a clearer error message - therefore either the ISP is being ingenious (polite way of saying lying), or the IWF ARE responsable for the message you get. Either way your desire to give the ISP more power is a bad idea.

The IWF is also not "ISP-run" in any way - they "subscribe" to it, and get given a solution... Very little (if any) feedback.

Yes, this interview does show the guy in charge in a good light - but that doesn't change the fundamental objection that so many people have to this system. There is NO oversight, NO independent control. If the IWF can get some generally accepted 3rd party to agree the URL list, then almost everyone that objects will shut up.

Say someone from the head of Amnesty International - give them the list to review, and get them to sign the list they do see so that it can't be changed after they've agreed it. If the URL count is as low as the IWF claim, then that's not actually going to be that big an overhead - since it is unilkely it changes /that/ often.

In the meantime, I'm off back to a "Real ISP" that offers me an unfiltered ("Real") internet connection.

@Paul Gomme:

As much as anything, people don't want to get a rep for being paedophile friendly. Despite how pointless the IWF's filtering is, there's still that fear - and we all know how easy it is to lead a mob by fear.

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Grenade

Burka the lot of them

Now that the IWF are officially stating that the image of a fully clothed child in a normal everyday situation (out with their parents) is it time to start wearing polarising glasses to protect us from becoming kid-raping monsters should we catch sight of a kid out in public? Could be dangerous of course, suddenly losing your ability to see while driving could be deadly, but would in it's own way solve the overall problem.

While I can understand that repeated and involuntary exposure to material you find objectionable can change the behaviour of a person towards that subject/material (e.g., school, church, possibly those camps to "cure" camp, etc.) blocking access does nothing apart from make over outlets more attractive.

What would be nice is if we had a organisation that could, I don't know, maybe watch the visitors to these websites. Of course I'm not happy about government surveillance any more than I'm thrilled with government censorship, but at least it'd be a step towards helping the vulnerable young and away from treating us all like them.

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Megaphone

To all the people...

...who are bemoaning the prosecution regarding the fully clothed child, did he say that the prosecution was in the UK? Did he say that the IWF was involved? Were you part of the jury that saw the photograph referenced?

No. He talked about context. You don't know what else was in that photograph.

It strikes me that this is the best option available, far better than a government-run filtering scheme - trust me, the country I live in is desperate to implement one, supposedly to filter out immoral content (like the authorities here are ones to judge), but you can be damned sure that seditious material will find its way onto the block list.

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Big Brother

Re: To all the people...

"You don't know what else was in that photograph."

Do we need to?

From the article: "However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency."

Level one is the lowest level of indecency. If the images weren't even at that lowest level, then there was no indecency at all. And yet people were convicted?

It doesn't matter what the context was if the images themselves aren't indecent. (And even if the context meant the images were somehow, in a context-dependent way, indecent, they wouldn't have then been below the bottom of the scale of indecency. Or if, with such context, they were still below the bottom of the scale and still not indecent...)

How, then, would context make it okay to convict people of possessing non-indecent (decent?) images of children? Robbins is quoted as saying, "Context includes not just how the picture is used, but how it is viewed by the world in general." That's very worrying, as it suggests it's really not a matter of whether or not the images themselves are indecent anymore, but is increasingly a matter of people's thoughts.

On the question of "how the picture is used" - what does that mean? Does it mean, say, using it for masturbation? So if it's a non-indecent image of a fully-clothed child, perhaps taken from a children's clothing catalogue, and it's used by the possessor for their own sexual stimulation, then it's okay to convict that person of possession, even though they're not actually committing the relevant offence?

If so, that would be a serious abuse of criminal law which, if allowed to stand, would make a mockery of the rule of law. Knowingly convicting people of committing crimes that they haven't actually committed, simply because of something about those people that the rest of us really don't like, is no better than doing away with rule of law and replacing it with mob rule - because that's essentially what it would be.

What's more, it would also be a clear case of thought-crime, convicting people not for what they've done (because they haven't even done it in these not-even-indecent cases), but for their thoughts. That would be totally, utterly unacceptable. The right to freedom of thought is absolute and unconditional, and rightly so. It is never acceptable to criminalise people for their thoughts - no matter how horrid - ever!

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Paris Hilton

@to all the people

"No. He talked about context. You don't know what else was in that photograph."

Indeed, because we are all denied the chance to see it and a=form a view for ourselves. There in a nutshell is the problem.

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Flame

Re - A selfish 1.5% of ISP's

Or to put it another way 1.5% of ISP's seem to be intent on getting the government to stop hiding behind a woolly and far from effective blocking system that is so easy to get around a Google or proxy server takes those so called protected people straight to the content it's supposed to stop access to in the first place.

Don't post up a biased perspective as you could argue 95% of UK ISP's users assume wrongly that because their ISP implements block lists they'll never get to that content. And of those 95% how many are proactively watching what their IT literate kids are doing? or accessing?

The IWF should remain in control of this not some Government agency or police force like New Scotland yard but if you seriously thing a CAi block list is the way forward your more of a pillock than your post suggests.

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Anonymous Coward

I don't remember ever voting for this guy...

"He is in no way the moralising, censorious villain that some of the internet’s more Libertarian anti-censorship lobby would make him out to be."

Oh yes he bloody is!!!! In effect if not in intent (and I have no doubt the intent is there with a vengeance). Where on earth would we all be without having an endless supply of our "betters" to tell us all how to behave?

As far as I'm concerned neither this guy or his organisation has remit or authority - and certainly little oversight - to sit in judgment on what's right or acceptable.

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Anonymous Coward

@Pat 11

"Yeah, but he's just censoring child porn. Are you suggesting it shouldn't be censored?"

No they're not, you forget we've seen the Australian list and that was 95% not CP, the British list is of similar size (I recall a claimd 2000+ sites) and therefore likely 95% not CP also.

You demonstrate the problem exactly, nobody can accuse IWF of false censorship because they will accused of wanting CP (as you accused me), and the similarity in size to the Aussie list shows how it creeps and creeps and creeps.

Also Dave Harris, comments, you realize that the law has been greatly expanded, the more censorship there is, the more is censored and the more there is to 'fear'. Pedo frenzy Britain are so hyped up, they don't even let their kids play in the street.

This is also a consequence of the pedo crowd screaming that their kids are not safe and there are 2000+ sites on the internet trading diddling pictures of snatched kiddies.... yet we know from the Aussie list that this is not real, and hence their fears are driven by lies.

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Anonymous Coward

I call bullshit

I see their spec says they also filter sites with content likely to 'incite racial hatred'. I also see that Wacky Jacky expected them to expand to cover extreme porn. I note how they have limited their expansion into the extreme porn area to cover UK sites only, but to me this is just an example of slow creeping expansion. They will sooner or later be censoring non UK sites, and their definition of 'hatred' will expand, just as Jacqui herself banned Dutch MPs from speaking to the House of Lords in her later 'crazier' years.

I do not believe their filter covers only 500 sites, their latest report says

"the number of domains confirmed to contain indecent images of children, known to the IWF, during 2008 (Figure 2). The total number, 1536, is composed of 74% commercial domains selling such content and 26% noncommercial domains where these images are stored or swapped"

I believe he is not telling the truth because his numbers don't match his previous numbers. It is wildly different.

Also in the size of the commercial providers and the nature of the previous list, when I checked the Aussie list I checked 10% of the sites at random and not one was kiddy porn, NONE! It was regular porn with pages of sample images airbrushed, clicking the image, showed the full set non airbrushed and they were clearly regular porn. You may think the single image cropped and airbrushed might be a child, but the full image clearly showed otherwise.

This is what I think their list says is commercial CP.

So IWF may be under fire for the Wikipedia incident, however there is a basic problem there, and it does not go away until the IWF goes away.

If someone is exchanging kiddy diddlig pictures, then they should be prosecuted, IWF is not a fix, it is a long term threat to free speech disguised as a child protection system.

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Big Brother

They don't care about getting rid of child porn

According to research done by the University of Cambridge, banks can get phishing sites in foreign countries shut down in an average of 3.5 hours, but the IWF takes no action to get foreign kiddie porn websites shut down, and on average they last 30 days.

Why? Perhaps because the IWF doesn't want to get rid of this stuff. They are in the business of censorship, not the business of protecting children from abuse. They must be secretly worried that their blocklist is getting smaller: if it gets to zero, there's no reason for them to keep their jobs.

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IWF and fully clothed children

....perhaps the parents were the ones butt naked ????

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Anonymous Coward

What he doesnt tell you......

is that if you report anything to IWF likelihood is YOU will be a target of his old employers !. Yes siree.

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Unhappy

clothed children

A few years back, there were various modelling agencies, specialising in young underwear models (as young as 6, IIRC). The pictures would not _actually_ break the letter of the law here, though would break the _spirit_ of the law. A court case did come about, but that was actually for possesing a loaded gun around minors

Anon because the best way to describe the content would be cameltoes, and "accidental" nipple exposure. And parents were involved in this...google playtoy, but be aware of possible driveby's to get the info

let's just censor all cp, no buts

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Anonymous Coward

@ Bad Fish

"They are in the business of censorship, not the business of protecting children from abuse. They must be secretly worried that their blocklist is getting smaller: if it gets to zero, there's no reason for them to keep their jobs."

This is the nub of the problem for all in the child protection racket. How to keep business brisk in the face of overwhelming evidence that - certainly - there is no significant 'commercial' CP industry as has often been claimed by these organisations in the past. Perhaps there are a few very foolhardy sites in existence actually trying to sell this stuff, but CEOP say their focus is now very much on P2P networks and the FREE exchange of this material. This makes for a far more believable scenario, whilst changing the landscape significantly.

This would suggest that most available material is 'historic' or, more worryingly, the product of private individuals abusing kids and posting up their material for kicks. If CEOP are really in the 'child protection' business (as they claim) their focus should be on investigating and prosecuting those responsible, rather than their historical role as the nation's number one 'six o-clock knocker', hell-bent on kicking down the doors of anyone who even glimpses this stuff (although, in fairness to them, they claim they only ever pass on details to individual police forces who then act on such information).

We know that from the IWF's own reporting that much less less than 1% of all online CP (free or commercial) is actually hosted in the UK. If the problem is therefore that the overwhelming majority of this material is carried via filesharing sites based in N America or Europe, etc, I see no easy way for the IWF (or anyone else for that matter) to block it. Surely they'd have to block quite legitimate filesharing sites en masse, on the off chance they are also denying access to dodgy files? I doubt many legitimate filesharers would welcome the sudden denial of service to these sites because the IWF or CEOP can't be sure who's downloading what. I should add that Deep Packet Inspection is expected to become a tool in CEOP's forensic arsenal (if it isn't already), a method that might perhaps circumvent the need to 'blanket ban' filesharing sites - if the right packets are being inspected.

What makes this so much more difficult to get a handle on is the smoke and mirrors style of reporting from the likes of both IWF and CEOP. They just don't seem to be able to make their respective cases with any measure of clarity. Both organisations speak in broad generalisations, often using carefully chosen words deliberately left open to wild interpretation. Added to this is the impossibility of anyone in the responsible media actually researching their claims to any reasonable degree without a very real fear of prosecution.

As the spectre of an online 'CP industry' recedes from plausibility, organisations like these must seek to not only justify their claims, but to back them up with understandable, credible evidence. UK taxpayers annually fork out for both organisations to some large degree (although both also receive significant financial support from industry) - is it not, therefore, unreasonable to expect a better return for our money than a few intermittent - and largely cryptic, speculative and self-congratulatory - statements, none of which can be independently verified?

Since Operation Ore we have endured these seasonal sideshows from the likes of CEOP in particular (not unsurprisingly, really; one look at their website reveals a growing fondness for running any number of specialist (and doubtless lucrative) conferences, courses, workshops and initiatives tailored for all those working within the child protection industry, many of whom are hopelessly and quite incestuously intertwined) and every year these utterances seem to become more and more about keeping a fear of almost mythical proportions foremost in the industry's and wider media's mind, rather than facing up to the rather dreary and unexciting realities of the situation.

If the threats of online CP become still less significant in the next few years (and I'll wager that without a doubt they will) do any of us imagine that any of these self-interested, self-promoting and disproportionately powerful organisations will 'pack up and go home' as suggested? Or do we suspect that their focus will, instead, shift in a changing market and they might perhaps seek to redefine their 'remits' to include (and criminalise) whole new tranches of hitherto quite legal material..? My money is on the latter. Self-preservation FTW.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: clothed children

"A few years back, there were various modelling agencies, specialising in young underwear models (as young as 6, IIRC). The pictures would not _actually_ break the letter of the law here, though would break the _spirit_ of the law."

Here in the UK, the Protection of Children Act 1978 (http://www.opsi.gov.uk/RevisedStatutes/Acts/ukpga/1978/cukpga_19780037_en_1) criminalises possession of "indecent photographs of children", with no specified definition of "indecency" that I can see. I am not a lawyer, but that sounds to me like there isn't much room for a difference between the letter and spirit of the law here.

If the children are clothed, but the images are still indecent, then they're still indecent, and possession is still a crime. If they're not indecent, then they're not indecent. What's significant about what Robbins allegedly said is not merely that the children were clothed, but that "prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency."

According to the Sentencing Guidelines Council Guideline on Sexual Offences (http://www.sentencing-guidelines.gov.uk/guidelines/council/final.html), "a level one standard of indecency" are "Images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity". What kind of "indecent" images of children are indecent while not even "depicting erotic posing", and "with no sexual activity", and with the children clothed? That would seem to be what Robbins is talking about: images where the children are clothed, there is no sexual activity, and the children are not even in erotic poses.

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Big Brother

clothed children

It is worse than the posters above suppose.

There are no criteria whatsoever for indecency in the law, which means possession of indecent images is effectively limited only by the degree to which the fact of accusation and the plausibility of prosecution experts - argument from authority in other words - can persuade a jury. Legally it is a test of fact; factually it is a test of social psychology.

Yet this is an offence that is regarded by the public as among the most serious in the book, canvassed by child-protectors as in itself 'abuse' (with a connotation of rape), and labelled as a sex-crime bearing a severe risk of brutal treatment in prison.

The Register has covered the jurisprudential problems of such sexthoughtcrime statutes extensively in the past. I blogged a couple of practical examples, here:

http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2006/03/thoughtcrime_and_maythinkcrime.html

and here:

http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2006/08/sexthoughtcrime_again.html

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