PI challenges European website blocking proposals

website blocking

Human rights group Privacy International has written an open letter to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to express concerns about a directive that may result in website blocking.

Today and tomorrow, the parliament's committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs will consult on "combating sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography." This has a section regarding the blocking of internet sites that are accused of peddling child pornography.

The meeting primarily comprises groups and individuals with strong feelings against child abuse. This is making digital rights groups worried the site blocking regulations will be passed without much discussion.

Whilst rights groups are undeniably opposed to child pornography and abuse, the use of blocking sites is seen to be stepping on dangerous territory. The main concern is it could set a precedent for further blocks to be imposed in other areas and blocking is a futile process.

When a site is blocked, other sites will be designed to replace it. This has proved true in attempts to block illicit music-copying services.

Gus Hosein, policy director at Privacy International, began his letter saying: "We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding plans for internet blocking. As an international privacy group we have some particular concerns that we would like to raise to your attention."

He then moved on to outline a list of areas he felt should be investigated.

The first was Function creep. "Once implemented," he said, "there is nearly always a function creep, in that the scope of the policy and the technologies will increase over time."

"The purposes for which blocking will be deployed will grow because it will be simple to add more criteria, once the blocking infrastructure is in place."

He claimed once the principle of treating communications as sacrosanct was breached, other changes would creep in. This was impacted by the European Commission's oversight to evaluate the impact of blocking in countries where blocking occurs.

A major concern was over-blocking would occur where legal sites found their way onto the lists of illicit sites. He gave two examples of errors made by similar bans that ultimately inhibited freedom of speech.

The first was a Finnish blocking list that included a website criticising web blocking. The second involved an Australian doctor who was publicly associated with the publication of child abuse material when his website actually dealt with euthanasia.

The final point made by Hosein was that some site visitors may be censured because of accidental visits to illegal sites through redirection. When the user arrived at the target page, personal information could be recorded, identifying them as a visitor even though they perhaps pressed the browser stop button or move immediately away from the site.

He concluded: "We ask you to consider these matters as the deliberations move forward on this problematic policy proposal."