ENDitorial: Internet blocking in ten weeks and counting

By EDRi · September 22, 2010

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: [ENDitorial: Internet-Sperren in zehn Wochen | http://www.unwatched.org/node/2205]

Within the next ten weeks, the European Parliament will finish its crucial
first reading of the Directive which, if the European Commission has its
way, will impose an EU-wide blocking infrastructure – undermining child
protection, fundamental rights and the EU’s voice on freedom and democracy
in the world.

The measure proposed is quite interesting. The text reads as follows:
“Member States shall take the necessary measures to obtain the blocking of
access by Internet users in their territory to Internet pages containing or
disseminating child pornography. The blocking of access shall be subject to
adequate safeguards, in particular to ensure that the blocking is limited to
what is necessary, that users are informed of the reason for the blocking
and that content providers, as far as possible, are informed of the
possibility of challenging it.”

The first point to note is that it proposes an undefined approach and not
any form of minimum standard. Any technology that could possibly follow
under the dictionary definition of blocking, no matter how technologically
flawed, no matter how out of date, no matter how damaging to networks would
be acceptable. The
Commission simultaneously feels that the problem is so urgent that blocking
must be proposed, yet the problem is so unimportant that any deficient or
out of date technology is perfectly fine. The supporters of blocking have
been very curiously and very completely silent on this point.

The “safeguards” are also of limited value. Ensuring the blocking is limited
to what a Member State considers “necessary” means little, with countries
like France planning to block sites accused of intellectual property
infringement and Denmark blocking (and thereby boosting traffic by 12%) the
Pirate Bay website. Informing the users about the reasons for the block is
not a safeguard, it is a very limited exercise in transparency. Finally, a
provision whereby the owners of websites depicting serious crimes against
children are politely informed that their website is the subject of a weak,
inadequate blocking system is not a safeguard – unless you are the grateful
criminal being given this valuable information.

So far, many Members of the European Parliament have been convinced that
blocking is an undesirable option. Unfortunately, however mantras being
repeated by a powerful alliance of businesses, Commission-funded NGOs and
the Commission itself are having an effect on parliamentarians. As a result,
the most likely outcome at the moment is a “compromise” that would say
blocking should be a last resort, once everything else has been tried. So,
an obligation would be imposed on Member States to build a blocking
infrastructure, with the request that they not use it, if possible.

Three messages are being pushed particularly hard:

1. This proposal is only about child abuse images, it will not spread into
other policy areas. This message is being pushed even though the Commission
itself is offering funding for blocking of other material, even though the
Council of Ministers has adopted a text supporting blocking to protect
national gambling monopolies and even though blocking is spreading into
other fields in countries such as Belgium (gambling), Bulgaria (gambling),
France (gambling and intellectual property), Italy (gambling, intellectual
property, free online advertising, defamation, cigarette import, steroid
advice) and Lithuania (gambling).

2. Blocking “works in some cases”. In no case can leaving a child abuse
website online be considered “working”. In no case can leaving criminals
unpunished and victims unprotected be considered working. Yet, somehow, the
impression is being created that the abuse websites are somehow just a
nuisance that will disappear if we can only persuade the whole continent to
look away.

3. Blocking “stops accidental access,” yet it has proven completely
impossible for the European Commission to produce evidence from the Internet
hotlines that it funds (on condition that statistics are produced!) showing
that there are any fewer complaints about illegal content being found online
in countries with blocking compared with those without blocking. In any
event, with only approximately one person in every three thousand reporting
illegal content, the numbers involved are miniscule.

Unless something is done now, in a few short years, blocking will have
sapped the political motivation to take real measures to fight online child
abuse. The powerful intellectual property lobby and national gambling
monopolies have had blocking installed for their interests. The
“self-regulatory” blocking so enthusiastically supported by the Commission
will be used by the tabloid media to pressure Internet Service Providers to
block whatever takes their fancy (as can be seen in the USA from the
Craigslist case and the case where T-Mobile allegedly blocked text messages
for a legal medicinal marijuana supplier). One would almost feel sorry for
the Commission in years to come when it tries to explain to China or Iran or
Turkey they are placing too many restrictions on the use of the Internet.

The reason why blocking is never the answer is that “blocking” leaves the
website online – it doesn’t block the website at all, it takes down the
signpost, while leaving infinite numbers of roads to the blocked site open.
It leaves the illegal site easily accessible for anyone who wants to see it.
It does nothing to investigate the criminals or the users of the site, it
does nothing to identify and rescue the victims. All it could conceivably do
is stop accidental access and nobody has been able to show that this is a
problem that would require a blocking infrastructure to be developed, which
anyway can be (and already is in several countries) misused for less
important issues, such as protecting national gambling monopolies. Only
about one person in every three thousand , in any one year, reports illegal
child abuse material to a national hotline – the argument that blocking is
necessary as a short term solution to prevent accidental access while
websites are being taken offline simply bears no relationship with reality.

The time is now to protect the Open Internet in Europe. The time is now to
contact parliamentarians and persuade them not to make possibly the biggest
mistake in the history of the Internet in Europe and the world.

EDRi’s blocking booklet
German Version

T-Mobile sued for allegedly blocking pot-related texting (18.09.2010)

Censoring Craigslist (8.09.2010)

European Commission funding proposal

Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on
combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child
pornography, repealing Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA

“Impact assessment”: Accompanying document to the Proposal for a Council
Framework Decision on combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of
children and child pornography, repealing Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA –
Impact assessment {COM(2009)135} {SEC(2009)356

Commission official explains the Commission’s research

Cybercriminals thank Commissioner Malmström

(Contribution by Joe McNamee – EDRi)