The Irish broadband provider UPC has introduced blocking for web addresses that are alleged to contain child abuse material. It chose an interesting moment to do this – with the total number of domains allegedly hosting abuse material half what it was ten years ago and with sites staying online for historically short periods of time (three-quarters of them for less than ten days). It also appears to be rather odd timing, due to the significant move away from static websites to the (mis-)use of free image-hosting and similar services, where potentially illegal content is removed quickly and which cannot be blocked due to the fact that they contain almost exclusively legal content.
The fact that the “blocking” is happening at a time when there is less justification than at any time in the history of the internet is somewhat less surprising when looking at the uncritical press coverage surrounding the initiative. It was explained in the Irish Times, a daily Irish newspaper, that Internet users, who “either accidentally or deliberately” tried to access a site that was on the blocked list would be shown a page explaining why they had been blocked.
If the system is supposed to block accidental hits, one does have to wonder why there is no evidence at all as to whether this actually happens or not. The only “research” on the existence of this problem is from the UK’s online child abuse hotline, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which discovered – with a margin of error of +/-3% – that 1% of men and 0.5% of women had ever accidentally accessed such content. In other words, the number is immeasurably small. In addition, only a fraction of that number would be prevented by such blocking measures, as it takes time for sites to get put on the blocking list.
If the system is supposed to stop deliberate visits to such websites, where is the evidence that this actually happens? Furthermore, if the worst thing that could happen when searching for such material is to see a blocking page, it seems to be more of a safety feature than a deterrent for people that would deliberately visit such sites.
The Irish Minister of Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, stated that the measure will “significantly reduce” the amount of child abuse material available. This is factually incorrect; all of the blocked material will remain available to anyone motivated to circumvent the blocking system.
However, her statement that the measure “will also reinforce the message that the viewing or possession or indeed trading in child abuse material is simply not acceptable” is more serious. The Irish Government is currently preparing the ratification of the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention (“Budapest Convention”) and has consistently supported the EU’s demands for its worldwide adoption. The Budapest Convention provides an explicit option for states NOT to criminalise the procurement and possession of child pornography. Unlike the symbolic act of persuading an internet provider to claim to “block” this material, the Cybercrime Convention is a real, potentially global international legal instrument. It is hard to reconcile a statement that “possession and trading in child abuse material is simply not acceptable” with global promotion of a Convention which appears to suggest the opposite. Support for the Cybercrime Convention is also difficult to reconcile with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the most widely ratified international children’s rights treaty, ratified also by Ireland.
Despite all the contradictions and inaccuracies, UPC received some good publicity, the Irish police and Interpol received some good publicity, Minister Fitzgerald received some good publicity. So, almost all of the people involved gain something from the initiative. Almost. Now, who are we forgetting?
Child abuse and child pornography offenses – this is how the police works (only in Swedish)
Child sex abuse sites to be blocked by broadband provider (10.11.2014)
EDRi-gram: ENDitorial: Child abuse online: Is ignorance the best policy? (16.07.2014)