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The European Parliament is currently debating a proposed EU directive to prevent the sexual abuse of children and child pornography. One of the main topics of discussion has been the pros and cons of blocking offending websites. Whilst we all agree that this is a very important issue that must be tackled correctly there are many contrasting views over the best approach.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Historically, in the UK at least, ISPs that implement the voluntary IWF filter block reported websites, meaning standard users will be protected from viewing the illegal material. However, the blocks can be circumnavigated quite easily by the most persistent offenders and the illegal content can still be accessed and distributed. MEP Alexander Alvaro (ALDE, DE) has argued that because of this, blocking is not effective.

In response to this debate EuroISPA has announced its own proposals for tackling the issue. Firstly it agrees with MEP Alvaro and suggests that all offending websites should be completely removed rather than blocked. Malcolm Hutty, President of EuroISPA and Head of Public Affairs at Linx, said: “In order to make the Directive on child sexual exploitation as strong as possible, emphasis must be placed on making swift notice and take down of child sexual abuse material focused and effective. Blocking, as an inefficient measure, should be avoided. Law enforcement authorities’ procedures for rapid communication to Internet Hosting Providers of such illegal material must be reviewed and bottlenecks eliminated.”

This is of course a fantastic idea and one that we completely support, however removing these websites is not as easy as it sounds. Problems arise where the servers that house the websites are located beyond an authority’s jurisdiction. Therefore EuroISPA is also calling for improved co-operation between European member states when tackling such issues. In their report they reference the banking sector which due to international agreements is able to remove fraudulent phishing sites within an average of 4 hours from notification. Child abuse sites however remain online for an average of 4 weeks because such agreements either currently don’t exist or the legal processes required are too slow.

EuroISPA also correctly argues that ISPs are unable to police the Internet and that we will require co-operation from the public. They therefore call for anonymous hotlines to be put in place where Internet users that stumble across illegal sites can report them anonymously to the relevant authorities, enabling such sites to be found and removed more efficiently. Again we think this is a very good idea and believe the majority of ISPs would support this initiative and publicise such hotlines to their customers.

The Great European Firewall?

MEPs have also discussed the potential complications that could occur due to “differing sensitivities” across member states. The general consensus so far amongst MEPs appears to be that the actual blocking/removal/filtering of offending sites should be left up to individual states rather than an EU wide filter or policy being imposed.

This has obvious merits when compared to an EU wide filter being imposed. Firstly it would satisfy the problem of ‘differing sensitivities’ across member states as each state would be responsible for its own policies. Secondly it would silence any fears that an EU wide filter could be misused or its remit expanded for political gain or censorship. Similar concerns have been continuously voiced in response to the Australian firewall which was originally conceived to solve similar problems for Australian citizens. However throughout its implementation concerns were raised that the remit of the firewall was being expanded to include wider reaching topics such as discussions around euthanasia and sites providing advice on safer drug taking practices etc. Critics have argued that without efficient monitoring current governments could widen the scope of the filter for political gain effectively censoring information that they deem as inappropriate. If an EU wide filter was implemented we can be sure similar concerns would surface as members states fight to ensure their voices are heard. Therefore we agree that the actual filtering/blocking of the Internet should be state specific and should simply aim to achieve EU wide objectives such as the eradication of child pornography from the Internet.

So, just how easy is it to identify offending sites?

Not that easy. If it was, we wouldn’t be having these discussions. It is important to remember that filters such as the current UK IWF list are not without their problems. There have been several cases in the past of innocent websites being incorrectly blocked. A block can be corrected relatively easily but if the website has been removed, that is more complicated to correct and could be detrimental to businesses that have been wrongly accused. Innocent sites affected in the past have included Wikipedia and even a website for a campaign against child pornography which was blocked twice in the Netherlands. Therefore we believe that website removals should only be conducted following a request from the police or equivalent authority on completion of their investigations.

As already stated by EuroISPA ISPs cannot be held responsible for policing the Internet. As we have argued many times before ISPs are mere conduits of information. However ISPs do need to cooperate with the authorities, industry bodies and the public in order to respond to reported websites and take action. That is why we agree with EuroISPA that the introduction and publicising of anonymous hotlines to report offending sites is a good idea and one that should be supported by ISPs. However we would like to understand more from EuroISPA on who they suggest should fund and manage these.

Keeping legal pornography away from minors

In a related issue, the UK Government recently suggested plans for a universal block on all legal pornographic content in order to protect children from accidentally stumbling across such sites. They suggested that adults wishing to view these sites would need to ‘opt in’ via their ISP.

Let’s face it, the ‘opt in’ via your ISP idea is completely unfeasible. You can imagine the family conversations now:

Parent to child: How on earth have you managed to view that site? I thought there was a blanket block on porn sites now!

Child responds innocently: I don’t know it just came up!

Whilst the other parent quietly slips out of the room to phone the ISP and opt back out before their partner finds out!

But in all seriousness the emphasis should not be on blocking content in order to protect children; it should be on educating parents and children on the dangers of the Internet. Educating families on simple practices such as ensuring the family PC is in a communal room, encouraging children to discuss things that they find upsetting on the Internet with an adult, setting up parental controls etc.

A new report from the London School of Economics (LSE) which researched the use of parental controls and filtering across Europe shows that UK parents are already leading the way on this with 54% blocking or filtering Internet access for their children. This compares to the EU average of 28%. Additionally, 70% of parents surveyed say they talk to their children about their Internet usage and 58% say they stay near to their children when they are online. However this latest research differs somewhat from Ofcom’s recent stats which suggest only 43% of parents of children aged between 5-15 years have parental controls in place, which is a decrease from 2008 which stated 49%. Either way these stats are still much higher than the European average of just 28% according to the LSE’s stats.

If we start blocking access to legal pornography under the remit of protecting children on the Internet, where will it all end? How soon will other types of sites containing legal content that is only suitable for adults be added to the blocking list and how quickly could we end up with a highly censored Internet? Unless you choose to ‘opt in’ of course, which would completely defeat the purpose.

Nicholas Lansman, the secretary general of ISPA (Internet Service Providers Association) agrees with us and recently stated: “Blocking lawful pornography content… will lead to the blocking of access to legitimate content and is only effective in preventing inadvertent access”.

Whilst we completely agree that children should not be able to easily access such content, the responsibility for protecting their access should lie firmly with parents and guardians. ISPs already provide a number of parental control tools to help with this and it’s the Government’s duty to educate families (potentially with ISPs’ help) on safe practices. Suggesting a blanket block is ludicrous and to expect adults to ‘opt in’ via their ISP is equally ridiculous and completely unfeasible.

In conclusion, we agree that these issues need to be tackled and that protecting children should be a top priority. However, we have a number of concerns surrounding the latest proposals. Whilst we agree that the complete removal of websites containing child pornography etc is better than simply blocking them, we also feel that strict controls need to be put in place to protect the innocent. That is, removal only following a police investigation not simply based on potentially unreliable filters and watch lists. We also agree with EuroISPA that international agreements need to be forged to simplify and speed up these legal processes.

Additionally we agree that these filters should be maintained on an EU member state basis, not as an EU wide blanket filter which would be difficult to manage; would not consider differing sensitivities across member states; and could be open to abuse as competing states fight for political power. We also support the idea of anonymous hotlines to help the authorities identify offending sites quickly and easily, subject to further information on the responsibilities for managing these.

On the subject of blanket blocking legal pornography under the remit of protecting children from accidentally accessing this content, we find the current proposals to be completely unworkable and open to abuse. Instead of considering blanket blocks the Government should be investing time and resources into educating parents and children on best practices and promoting parental control tools which may help them keep their children safe on the Internet.

Have your say!

What do you think is the best approach to tackling these highly important issues? Do you think blocking is sufficient or do you think website removal is more effective? Do you have any concerns over the current proposals? How do you think children should be protected from accessing adult only content on the Internet? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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