Blocked for two years, then taken down in just 30 minutes – a disastrous result of Internet Blocking policy
Internet blocking is advocated as an allegedly effective measure against the proliferation of child abuse images. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark have been using this technology for years. But a practical test by the German Working Group against Access Blocking and Censorship (AK Zensur) in cooperation with European civil rights advocacy groups has shown: Internet blocking does not fight abuse, in practice it only serves to conceal the failures of politics and police. Websites can remain on blocking lists for years even though they have either been deleted or could be deleted easily and quickly.
How is this possible, and what could be done against illegal sites? Answers are given by a new analysis of current blocking lists from Sweden and Denmark by the Working Group against Access Blocking and Censorship. The group developed software to select, categorise and geo-locate 167 blocked Internet domains as a representative sample of websites blocked in Denmark at the time of the investigation. "The result is a smack in the face of law enforcement authorities", says Alvar Freude of the Working Group. "Of the 167 listed sites, only three contained material that could be regarded as child pornography." Two of these three sites had been blocked in Denmark since 2008, and these are, or least were, blocked in Sweden, Norway and Finland as well. These sites were therefore known for at least two years in several countries, and apparently law enforcement authorities did nothing to try and get this illegal content removed.
This is even more disturbing because the Working Group managed to take down the remaining sites just by sending a few emails. Two of the sites were hosted in the USA, and even during the weekend (Friday, ca. 10 p.m. EDT) they were removed by the hosters within 30 minutes. On the following Tuesday, the third website was taken down by its registry in India, three hours after notification. The content was stored on a server in the Netherlands. "The removal of this dehumanising content and the pursuit of the perpetrators must have absolute priority. Internet Blocking leads to the exact opposite", says Alvar Freude, who sent the take-down requests.
Analysis of the remaining entries on the Scandinavian blocking lists demonstrated again that blocking is ineffective. More than half of the listed sites had already been deleted – but were still being blocked. The investigators seem to be operating a "fire and forget" strategy by just putting the sites on the lists – they don't seem to go after the crimes and the perpetrators, and they don't unblock sites that are no longer relevant, which they should do for freedom of speech considerations.
"The fact that internet blocking is hailed as a cure-all by national and EU politicians is scandalous," said AK Zensur's Vera Bunse. Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is trying to create facts by introducing an EU directive – making Internet blocking compulsory for all European countries. As to how effective blocking has been so far, politicians tend to evade the questions. Vera Bunse continued: "It seems that not only at the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA), but also in politics, the motto seems to be 'hide rather than pursue'".
"Blocking means looking away instead of acting," says Alvar Freude, summarising the debate. "It is time for politicians to turn to meaningful action. They should agree to take down the content and pursue the perpetrators instead of hiding the content and protecting the perpetrators."
The analysis: analysis-blacklists.pdf (PDF, 487 kB)
Why web access blocking is the wrong approach in fighting "child pornography"
Sexual abuse ranks among the worst things that can be done to a child. And that's exactly why it is so important to focus on efficient, proportionate measures in the fight against spreading documents of abuse (often diminuitively dubbed "child pornography"). Blocking web sites, as proposed by EU commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, will not help here, on the contrary: it is counterproductive even as a "last resort" measure.
Blocking rings an alarm for criminals
It is easy for operators of "child porn" web sites to set up automated tests on whether their web sites are currently blacklisted, gaining insight into investigations against themselves. As a result, access blocking acts as a rapid alert system for criminals.
Blacklists won't remain secret
By employing access blocking measures, authorities in effect publicise a table of blacklisted sites: Once websites get blocked, it is easy to scan whether any given site is part of the list and eventually deduce the complete list. That is not a theoretical claim, it has been proven in practice. Pedophiles could therefore use these lists to find the content in question.
The illegal sites don't hide in "failed states"
It's often argued that a majority of "child porn" content is distributed from nations where criminal prosecution is impossible. This has been proven wrong. All analyses show that the majority of blacklisted websites is hosted in the United States and Europe, notably Germany. According to an analysis of a Danish blacklist by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA), these are the major server locations:
USA: 1148; Germany: 199; The Netherlands: 79; Canada: 57
None of all the blacklists leaked so far contains even one website that's hosted in one of the so-called "failed states" (though the BKA won't cease to claim the contrary).
Quick takedown of illegal content is possible
A University of Cambridge study shows that banks succeed in having fraudulent websites (so-called phishing sites) taken down within four to eight hours – worldwide. If this is possible for simple fraud sites, why can't the same be done when it comes to depictions of child sexual abuse, which are outlawed all over the world?
Cross-border takedown is possible, as we could prove
Even before the current analysis, an experiment by AK Zensur’s Alvar Freude showed that it was possible to take down 61 websites from the blacklists within 12 hours, simply by contacting the respective host providers’ abuse departments by e-mail. Why don't we make investigators follow that approach, rather than waste their time compiling and maintaining blacklists?
Blocking is welcome news for authoritarian regimes – and it won't stop access
Web access blocking introduces an infrastructure that can be used for any content whatsoever, which is usually attributed to authoritarian states only, e.g. China, Iran or Saudi-Arabia. These nations already point to Internet blocking in European states to justify their own internet censorship.
Moreover, access blocking is easily circumvented: Whoever manages to find this material in the first place will have no trouble avoiding any kind of blocking. This is because the content remains on the web and is only scarcely hidden.
Blocking misses its (professed) target
Experience with similar blocking systems in other countries has shown that the publicly stated aims of these measures can not be achieved. In all countries with an existing blocking infrastructure, websites distributing no illegal content at all have been affected as well. A dentist’s website has been blocked in Australia, an islamist site hosted in Germany has been blocked in Denmark, a native anti-censorship activist in Finland, and Italy sees gambling websites being blocked.
No significant commercial market
A recent study by the „European Financial Coalition“ (EFC) confirms earlier analyses of there being no significant commercial market for "child pornography".
Even talking of "no significant" market seems exaggerated, as the study showed that commercial suppliers of depictions of sexual abuse could not be found at all.
Freedom of information vs. human dignity
Distribution of "child pornography" is a crime outlawed all over the world, and it can be fought all over the world as well. Websites are just a minuscule part of the overall problem. And truly combating crime requires more than just setting up blinds that don't really prevent access. The basic principle must be: "Take down the content and pursue the perpetrators" rather than "Hide the content and protect the perpetrators".
Germany/German; technical issues, takedown:
Alvar Freude, firstname.lastname@example.org
AK Zensur, http://ak-zensur.de/
Tel: +49 (0) 179 / 13 46 47 1
Karin Ajaxon, email@example.com
Tel: +46 (0) 706369970
Joe McNamee, firstname.lastname@example.org
Advocacy Coordinator, European Digital Rights
Tel: +32 2 550 4112
Ot van Daalen, email@example.com
Bits of Freedom, https://www.bof.nl/
Tel: +31 (0)6 5438 6680