Out of sight, out of mind
29 Mar 2010

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.


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7 responses to “Out of sight, out of mind”

  1. […] La version complète est par ici -une version plus longue de cet article a été également publiée par Index on Censorship. […]

  2. […] Out of sight, out of mind | Index on Censorship. […]

  3. John Carr says:

    Absolutely everyone I know appreciates that this type of blocking only deals with the web and that it can be circumvented by those with the right level of technical knowledge and the determination. Do we know of any technology that can’t be circumvented or avoided? We also know web site blocking does not touch other technologies that are also used to distribute child abuse images e.g. Peer2Peer, but again this is not a reason for failing or refusing to tackle web sites that are known to publish or distribute child abuse images.

    Absolutely everyone I know would be delighted if all the guys behind the illegal trade were caught and prosecuted. And finally absolutely everyone I know also thinks we need to get better at identifying and locating the victims depicted in the images. But it is casuistry of the most facile and transparent kind to suggest that these are alternatives to blocking access to the guilty sites. They are not. These are steps which should be taken in addition to blocking, until the blocking is no longer needed because the site has gone. The alternative to every country taking down the sites is as many countries as possible blocking access to them. The criminals behind a substantial proportion of these sites are largely not paedophiles. They are criminals who systematically arrange for children to be raped in order that they can photograph and film the rape so they can then, in turn, sell the pictures of the rape for profit. If they cannot reach large parts of their market, through the web, they will stop doing it.

    Globally the international community deploys substantial resources to block phishing sites and spam. No one bats an eyelid. In fact we applaud. The least we can do for child victims of rape and other illegal sex abuse is to go at least as far as that. I appreciate that some ISPs or hosting companies do not want to spend the money making the adjustments to their systems to enable blocking, money is tight everywhere, but that is an altogether different point. We should be wary of the ISPs’ and hosting companies’ proxies or lobbyists who make the argument on their behalf, often trying to use concerns about censorship and free speech as (not very effective) cover. Absolutely there are issues that need to be addressed so as to safeguard against the possibility of blocking systems being used for other purposes which may be politically repressive or illiberal in some way. But Otropogo starts off from a position of such overwhelming ignorance of or apparent indifference to the child protection aspects it is difficult to know where to begin a meaningful debate.

    Otropogo’s counsel of perfection is in fact an alibi for inaction.”

  4. John Carr says:

    5. I agree that the consequences of merely being accused of or charged with a crime related to child abuse images are potentially devastating for the individual concerned. This is why we rightfully expect our law enforcement agencies only to act in relation to an individual when they have very strong evidence. Sadly no one has yet come up with a formula which would allow the police to make an arrest or the CPS to authorise a prosecution when there is 100% certainty of guilt. In this respect these crimes are no different from similar alleged heinous crimes which carry an enormous social stigma e.g. murder and rape.

    Otropogo also has something of a point about the response at international level. Partly this is simply a reflection of the fact that in some countries the Government does not care a hoot, or more commonly, they do care but still lack the technical knowledge or wherewithal to deal with it adequately. Is that a reason why in the UK or elsewhere we should sit back and wait until they catch up?

    People who download child abuse images have a higher likelihood of going on to commit further offences against children, either online or in the real world, or both. Is it right to allow the UK’s or other people’s children to continue to be exposed to further risk from such persons because we cannot get a number of overseas regimes to attach the same importance to the issue of child abuse web sites that we do? Must we organize an evangelical mission to convert the world before we can act to protect our children as best we can at home? I don’t think so. If we wait for every Government to fall in line or be convinced to give sufficient priority to this we will wait forever. And what, pray, do we do about the regimes who may well be complicit in the trade? Invade?

    Analogue solutions will not wash in the new digital world we are creating. Britain can be proud of its record of getting out there to fashion new tools and new approaches to try to solve some of the unforeseen, unintended and unwanted consequences of the emergence of the internet.

    Absolutely everyone I know would prefer for these sites “simply” to be removed, thus avoiding the need for blocking. In a perfect world that is what would happen. We would not need to debate the rights and wrong of blocking. This argument would be redundant. Roll on that happy day. However, the world is still some way off being perfect. Sadly.

  5. John Carr says:

    “It is hard to know whose article is less well informed: the original by Joe McNamee or the supporting one from Otropogo. Otropogo’s at least has the advantage of being short and enumerated so I will reply to that one and do a fuller rebuttal of Mr McNamee’s in due course.

    1. Otropogo is wrong. There is no ambiguity about who a child is. The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child makes it clear. The age of majority is 18. Anyone less than that, for legal purposes, is a child. The legal age of consent to sex may vary between jurisdictions but the age at which a person can participate in photographic or video depictions of sex or sexual activity to be published to or possessed by third parties is a different matter.

    2. Neither is there any ambiguity about what constitutes child pornography (or “child abuse images” as many now prefer to call this type of material because this expression more accurately captures and reflects what is actually happening in the image). A Council of Europe Convention, a UN Optional Protocol and several other international instruments spell it out. In the UK the Sentencing Advisory Council also spelt this out with great precision, having adapted a research based typology that had been developed by academics at the University of Cork.

    3. To suggest there is an “absence of any conclusive evidence of injury resulting from the mere existence of ‘child pornography’” only tells me that Otropogo spends more time thinking about censorship than he or she does about children. It is bad enough that a child has been sexually abused, but for a record of that abuse and the attendant humiliation to be captured on film and then published on the internet, potentially for the whole world to see, including your classmates and teachers at school, the dinner lady, the school caretaker, the person behind the checkout in the local supermarket, the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker, your potential future employer, your potential future boyfriend or girlfriend, can add hugely to the psychological damage already done to the child by the principal or originating act. As therapists who work with these victims have repeatedly testified, and victims have themselves directly confirmed, one thing that helps many to regain some sense of control over their lives, and immeasurably improves their chances of getting on to a path to recovery, is a belief that everything possible is being done to stop any more people seeing those pictures. And if the child cannot be sure of stopping everyone seeing the pictures then at least they are comforted by being convinced that everything possible is being done to stop as many people as possible from doing so. In that sense the “mere existence” of these pictures does do very real harm. It is also one of the reasons why I say that people who wilfully engage with these images are abusers by proxy.

    4. Otropogo says “The inability of the public to view the evidence.” is a problem. Hmm. That is such a bizarre idea I need hardly trouble answering it. See above. See any criminal or civil trial on almost any issue.


  6. otropogo says:

    Immediately deleting “websites that show images of child abuse”, as Joe McNamee suggests, would be a large step towards the global police state.

    Crimes related to production, distribution, and possession of “Child pornography” pose several unique challenges for societies which espouse the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”:

    1. the absence of a sensible, meaningful definition of “children”. Currently this term can cover anyone up to the age of 18, depending on the jurisdiction. Given the difficulty of distinguishing teenagers from adults visually, it is quite possible to have a website that appears to be full of erotic images of children when, in fact, there are none.

    2. the absence of a meaningful definition of “pornography”. Here is a term that has come to supplant the expression “erotica”, but is often expanded to include mere nudity. The concept is further hopelessly muddled by the free pass given to almost any sort of major commercial audiovisual production or literary work.

    3. the absence of any conclusive evidence of injury resulting from the mere existence of “child pornography”. Specious arguments abound, but arguments for the contrary (ie. that erotic depictions of children may relieve the urges of pedophiles and lessen the motivation for demonstrable abuse) are at least as persuasive. Is anyone seriously calling for criminalization of adult erotica on the grounds that it leads to rape?

    4. the inability of the public to view the evidence. Here we have the essential ingredient of the police state – a caste system, the elect (police, prosecutors,judges), who are deemed above suspicion and impervious to temptation, and can thus view the “corrupting” evidence, and the “sinful” public, for whom the mere attempt to see the “evidence” on the basis of which their neighbours are being imprisoned and ostracized is in itself a crime.

    5. the devastating and irreversible damage done to the accused by the mere allegation of any of these offenses

    Now, enforcement of these already dangerously vague notions of criminality on an international scale confronts a sixth difficulty – the huge differences in both legal definition and interpretation and enforcement between national jurisdictions.

    I suggest that before any such “deletions” are even considered, participating governments need to resolve the first five issues, devise a mutually acceptable international standard , and provide a meaningful and transparent appeal process .

    Otherwise, we are simply flushing justice down the toilet to have a “feel good” moment.

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