Out of sight, out of mind
Blocking websites that show images of child abuse doesn't work – but EU politicians still think it is a better policy than deletion says Joe McNamee
29 Mar 10

joe mcnameeBlocking websites that show images of child abuse doesn’t work – but EU politicians still think it is a better policy than deletion says Joe McNamee

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malström, is proposing a directive this week to block websites that show images of child abuse.

While tackling such websites is clearly laudable, we should not be misled by a politically motivated and ultimately destructive measure. Europe’s approach is in fact counterproductive, dangerous and could ultimately lead to gross abuses against the most vulnerable in society. The only truly effective way to address these abhorrent crimes is an international measure that has the websites deleted as quickly as possible. All available resources – including resources currently wasted on blocking measures – should be spent on the identification and rescue of victims, and on ensuring that the criminals behind the websites and peer-to-peer trafficking are prosecuted with the full force of the law.

Blocking websites merely offers an illusion of action, reducing pressure for effective policies to be implemented and for the international community to tackle the issue head on. As a result, citizens are led to believe that something is being done, and politicians can take refuge in a populist policy in the full knowledge that blocking has no positive benefits and leaves the websites online.

It is difficult to understand why policy on this issue is so passive. If there were websites that contained evidence of murder, it would be ludicrous to suggest that they be blocked rather than deleted and all possible efforts made to identify the victims and prosecute the murderers.

It is disturbing to note that every international trade agreement signed by the European Union includes strict requirements on protection of intellectual property, but none contain elements to encourage the removal of child abuse websites. Louis Vuitton handbags and Cartier watches are given a higher priority in international legal co-operation than abused young people.

Despite the lack of effective action, on average there is a new international treaty approximately every two years banning child abuse, with smiling politicians posing for press photos and demonstrating their determination by signing and sometimes even ratifying the agreements. Yet the “binding” obligation on states party to the United Nations child rights convention (to take all bilateral and multilateral actions to prevent the “exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials”) appears to be the victim of global amnesia. The policy of supporting internet blocking, at either a national or international level, supports and facilitates this inaction.

The internet was designed with the aim of ensuring that any one block on the network can be worked around – this is fundamental to how it works. Therefore, blocking is almost by definition doomed to failure and a waste of resources that could be deployed more effectively through deleting the information at source. At the core of this issue are real human beings and a technologically inadequate block will do less than nothing to protect them.

Politicians will sometimes argue that blocking will stop deliberate access or that it will stop accidental access to sites or that the aim is to stop commercial distribution of illegal images. But the truth is that it is not only exceptionally easy to evade blocking, it is also ultimately ineffective as sites now move location and web address ever more quickly, so it won’t stop deliberate access. No statistics have been produced to indicate that accidental access of actually illegal sites could either be solved by blocking or that the problem is a major one. For the problem of commercial websites, there is only a limited number of online payment methods, so ensuring a level of law enforcement that would deter subscribers would be a far more wide-reaching solution.

Though blocking is useless, it is becoming an increasingly popular policy, resulting in the censorship of more and more types of information across Europe, thanks to well-funded lobbying campaigns. The UK recently narrowly avoided legislation requiring blocking of websites to protect intellectual property. Denmark is proposing criminal sanctions for ISPs that provide access to gambling websites and Lithuania is proposing blocking for websites that are considered to endanger the family values defended by its constitution – with all the inherent dangers that this will have for free speech.


This is an edited extract of an article in the new issue of Index on Censorship. To read the rest of the piece, subscribe now.

Joe McNamee works as Advocacy Coordinatory for European Digital Rights in Brussels (EDRi). He works on issues related to privacy, cybercrime, intellectual property, freedom of information/communication and related topics.