ENDitorial: Internet blocking and damage to child protection

By EDRi · February 9, 2011

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: [ENDitorial: Netzsperren und der Schaden für den Kinderschutz |]

The child protection industry has been campaigning for years for the
introduction of EU-wide mandatory blocking of websites accused of being
illegal by the police, by independent authorities, etc. This is as a result
of a very laudable reflex – child abuse websites are even more abhorrent
than one would imagine and blocking a bad thing can only logically be a good
thing. Politically, it is an easy message.

Unfortunately, child protection in an international context is polluted with
easy messages and unthinking reflexes. Every government loves sounding tough
on child protection and every soundbite that does not require concrete
action results in a weakening of real measures being taken to protect
children from real abuse. The self-appointed childrens’ representatives
consistently support and encourage these meaningless and counterproductive
soundbites, ultimately damaging the very interests they claim to defend.

Every country in the world except Somalia has signed and ratified either the
UN Child Rights Convention or its Optional Protocol on the sale of children,
child prostitution and child pornography. The Convention requires
governments to take all appropriate national, bilateral and international
measures to prevent the exploitative use of children in “pornographic”
performances. The Optional Protocol requires governments to ensure that
child “pornography” is “fully covered under its penal and criminal law”.

We are told that some countries leave child abuse websites online for
months. Where is the public condemnation from the United Nations for these
blatant breaches of its most successful binding Convention? Where are the
shadow reports from child protection organisations condemning those
countries for gross failures to protect the weakest in society? Where are
the sanctions from governments bound under international law to take “all
appropriate national, bilateral and international measures to prevent the
abuse”? They are lost in soundbites.

The problem is that the Convention and the Optional Protocol have no
enforcement mechanisms. They can be signed and forgotten and states can move
on to the next soundbite.

We are told that web blocking is meant to be a “complementary measure”. It
will be part of a wider strategy. Unfortunately, it requires no action from
governments – building on years of failure and years of soundbites, they
will be able to claim that they are fighting child abuse when all they are
really doing is asking Internet providers to put up a screen – a screen
which will mask their own failures better than the abuse.

So, why does the child protection industry insist on promoting blocking? It
would be unfair to say that they are funded by governments and therefore
unwilling to criticise them. The issue appears to be based more on
misunderstandings than anything else. If we look at one particular child
campaigner’s blog (link below), we can see this quite clearly. He says:

“Blocking is, after all, a form of deletion. It renders the material
inaccessible to the great majority of internet users in the country where
blocking happens.”

A system which leaves the material online is not a form of deletion. Nobody
has been able to indicate any statistical difference between the number of –
or trends in – reports to child abuse hotlines in countries with or without

It has, therefore, no discernible impact on the great majority of internet
users. In any event, the great majority of internet users never find child
abuse material, according to statistics from Internet hotlines.
Furthermore, the great majority (over 75%) of those who think that they do
have actually found entirely legal material.

He goes on to say:
“Opponents of blocking are sort of saying everyone should be able to see the
images until no one can.”

It is difficult to know which opponents of blocking might be referred to
here. Innocent people very rarely access the material and there is no
evidence that blocking stops this to an appreciable extent. What we object
to are measures which take the pressure off governments to take real action
against websites containing evidence of real abuse and which destroy
fundamental rights in the process

He then explains that:
“A number of opponents of blocking make references to “the thin end of the
wedge” and to “dangerous precedents”, sometimes referred to jointly or
severally as the “slippery slope”. “Where will it all end?” they ask.”

This fails to recognise that this is not a “stand alone” argument. The
“slippery slope” is an inevitable cost. Any policy in any area requires the
costs and benefits to be compared and balanced. As there is no demonstrable
benefit to blocking, the slippery slope alone would make the measure

He continues:
“More reprehensible in some ways are those who make no attempt to deny that
blocking child abuse images is a good thing to do. Instead, and often
without any apparent embarrassment, they say they would do it in a trice if
only they could be sure blocking would forever be limited to that.

Terrorism, anorexia or suicide related materials frequently get mentioned as
examples of the types of content it is known others are pushing to be

Having worked on this issue for several years, I have never once heard
someone make this argument. Blocking is dangerous, counter-productive and
useless for child abuse images, whether other types of site are blocked does
not change this.

He adds:
“Why do they find it difficult to agree that they should be blocked pending
their deletion? It does not add up.”

Having seen governments sign, ratify and forget the UN Child Rights
Convention, the Convention’s Optional Protocol, the International Labour
Organisation Convention on the worst forms of child labour and the Stockholm
Declaration, it does not add up that people interested in child protection
would want to give governments yet another soundbite – another way of hiding
inaction on child protection behind empty promises.

There MUST be investigations in order to identify and rescue as many
children as possible. There MUST be investigations in order to find and
prosecute both the owners and users of such sites. Blocking will immediately
warn the people behind the websites that they have been spotted by law
enforcement authorities and they can act to protect themselves. Why would
child protection organisations want this?

He says:
“The techie world generally dislikes solutions which it believes are
“broken” i.e. that can be defeated or circumvented, but the point is the
knowledge and the determination to circumvent or defeat blocking are very
unevenly distributed.”

The problem that the techie world has is the same as the one that the
political world increasingly has with blocking. Techies are parents too and
therefore understand that all efforts to protect children must be effective.
They understand that every failed initiative has real human consequences. If
a policy has demonstrable costs and no demonstrable benefits, it must be

He continues:
“Critics say that if the EU gives official blessing to the use of blocking
it would enable totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world to point to
it to justify their own oppressive use of blocking.”

Nobody says that blocking of child abuse images will directly cause this.

However, “mission creep” is not a risk, it is a guarantee. Lawless blocking,
such as in the UK and Sweden is not a risk, it is an existing fact. If, and
it is already beginning to happen, EU countries block child abuse websites
to hide their own international failures, if they block entirely legal
gambling websites in order to protect tax revenues and gambling monopolies
and if they block websites accused of copyright infringement in order to
protect outdated industries that cannot cope with the digital age, if EU
countries abandon the rule of law and permit blocking without any
involvement of law enforcement (let alone judicial) authorities, it is not
alone encouraging totalitarian regimes to undermine access to information,
it is providing a blueprint for them.

Sadly and disappointingly, the campaigner then goes on to give statistics
which have been comprehensively, repeatedly and unquestionably disproven.

One of the many clear analyses of why the “statistics” are misleading
nonsense is linked from the bottom of this page.

To finish, and bearing in mind that total lack of any benefit of blocking
and the real dangers to child protection that blocking presents, I will
finish with two quotations from the campaigner that sum up the debate very

“If your starting point is the best interests of the child there is no way
you can end up concluding that, actually, after a lot of careful thought, a
great deal of soul searching and hand wringing it is best to leave pictures
of children being raped on full public view for a little while longer.”

“This argument turns sexually-abused children into bargaining chips.”

This is completely and reprehensibly true. It is incomprehensible to find
oneself trying to defend measures that will force governments to take proper
action against child abuse, being fought every step of the way by those
people whose job it is to do this.

Campaigner’s blog: Campaign bulletin: child pornography on the internet –
bad reasons and non-reasons for opposing blocking (29.01.2011)

Statistics: Twisting the facts to fit the story: child porn nonsense

Twisting the facts to fit the story – child porn nonsense

EDRi’s blocking booklet

(Contribution by Joe McNamee – EDRi)