Finnish ISPs must voluntarily block access

By EDRi · September 8, 2005

Ms Leena Luhtanen, Minister of Transport and Communications, announced on 26 August 2005 that Finnish ISPs will implement a censorship system to curb access to foreign web pages containing child pornography.

The announcement was accompanied by a study conducted by the ministry exploring the legal and practical aspects of such a system. The study concludes that the system is not efficient at curtailing child porn distribution, but may result in legitimate pages being blocked. The legal basis of the system is also somewhat suspect. Critics have denounced the Minister’s plan as an empty attempt to woo voters.

The Finnish constitution makes it very difficult to pass a law sanctioning ex ante censorship of web pages. The ministry acknowledges this and as a result, Ms Luhtanen’s plan is framed as a voluntary scheme of industry self-regulation, instead of mandatory regulation. The ministry contends that this is allowable under the constitution, and points out that similar systems are already in use in Sweden and Norway. However, in Sweden and Norway the systems are truly voluntary, in that end-users may choose whether to have their connection subjected to censorship or not. In Finland, the biggest ISP TeliaSonera has indicated that end-users will not have a choice, meaning that censorship is mandatory. According to EDRI member Electronic Frontier Finland (EFFI), this mode of censorship conflicts with the constitution.

According to the ministerial study, in practice ISPs will deny access to a list of IP addresses supplied by the Finnish police. The list is to be maintained by the police based on web pages suspected to contain child pornography. The list is to be kept secret. EFFI points out serious problems with this arrangement: there is no judicial review of items that end up on the list, meaning that the police is assuming powers belonging to the judiciary; there are bound to be mistaken entries due to simple human error in the absence of a review process; and there is also a grave potential for abuse due to secrecy and lack of review. Statements from the Finnish police indicate that they are not entirely comfortable with this arrangement either. ISPs note that IP-based censorship may result in legitimate pages being blocked as well.

The ministry’s study, TeliaSonera, EFFI and the police all agree that the system can not prevent all intentional access to child pornography. Most child pornography is not distributed through web pages with static IP addresses, but rather through alternative mechanisms such as newsgroups. IP-based censorship is also easily circumvented using any of the numerous free proxy services available on the web. Ms Luhtanen, Minister of Transport and Communications, nevertheless misleadingly states in her announcement that the system will stop most persons who intentionally attempt to access child pornography pages.

Ms Luhtanen’s main selling point however is that the system will prevent Internet users from accidentally accessing pages that containing child pornography. EFFI points out that in this case the system should be a voluntary value-added service similar to Sweden and Norway, not a mandatory one, as censorship is not justifiable under the constitution even if the intention is to protect users from inadvertent access. According to EFFI it also remains unclear whether accidental access to child pornography even happens to such an extent that it can be considered a national problem. Optional filtering services to combat this alleged problem already exist, but as the ministry’s study concludes, people have expressed very little demand for them so far.

This is not the first time Internet censorship is proposed in Finland. Earlier this year another Finnish minister unveiled a plan to block not child pornography but all indeterminate “filth” on public computers located in schools and libraries, following a promise made prior to elections. EFFI has been active in promoting public debate on the merits of such proposals. In general, censorship positions have been untenable so far.

Announcement by Ms Leena Luhtanen, Minister of Transport and Communications (26.8.2005, in Finnish)

Study by Ministry of Transport and Communications: Blocking access to foreign child pornography pages (26.8.2005, in Finnish) )

(Contribution by Vili Lehdonvirta, EDRI member Electronic Frontier Finland)