Lone IT industry voice speaks out against EU Web filter plan

Lobbying on EU plan to fight online child abuse heats up but opponents of blocking are outnumbered

A European proposal to introduce mandatory blocking of child abuse websites poses a threat to the openness of the Internet, according to Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA).

Black is so far the only person from the IT industry willing to speak out on the issue. Companies including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and the Spanish telecommunications operator Telefónica, as well as other trade groups representing the interests of the IT industry, either declined to comment, failed to respond to questions or said they are still analyzing the draft law.

Meanwhile, the European Commission which drafted the proposal is paying a group of child protection groups from around Europe €300,000 to lobby in favor of the proposed law. And key politicians in the European Parliament are already lined up firmly in favor of the plan.

The website blocking plan is part of a wide-ranging draft law intended to clamp down on child exploitation that was proposed by the European Commission last month.

The idea has sparked controversy, but owing to the sensitive nature of the subject, the lobbying against the idea from the IT industry has so far been muted.

"There is a real danger that this proposal will have unintended consequences," Black said in an interview.

"We oppose this idea partly because it is an inefficient way to combat online child abuse, but also because it builds on efforts by governments around the world to block what they don't like on the Net," he said.

Several countries in Europe including the U.K., Italy and the Scandinavian countries are already blocking a range of websites. The U.K. blocks illegal music file sharing sites; Denmark blocks online gambling sites, while Italy blocks a wide range of websites including ones selling cigarettes and even a site created to fight the Mafia.

"With laws like the one being proposed by the Commission, the open Net will die by 1000 cuts," Black said, adding: "The Internet is less threatened by China than it is by well-intentioned people trying to solve society's problems."

Black said he wishes others from the IT industry would show courage by opposing the blocking plan but he added that he isn't surprised by their reluctance to do so.

"Big companies are gun-shy. They don't want to get involved in issues where they can be attacked and in this case there's the risk that they will be portrayed as sympathetic to pedophiles," he said.

The task of explaining why website blocking won't help in the fight against child exploitation on the Internet has been left to civil liberties campaigners, who argue that blocking the sites will do nothing to stop the circulation of the offensive material.

They accuse the politicians promoting the plan of seeking to make political capital out of the issue, and warn that mandatory blocking of child abuse websites will inevitably lead to blocks on other types of websites such as online gambling sites or music file sharing sites.

And while the draft directive initially envisages blocks on DNS servers, there is nothing to stop it being applied to different technologies.

"If the blocking idea makes it into an E.U.-wide law, Internet service providers will have to install filters on their networks in order to target the child abuse websites," said Joe McNamee, an E.U. affairs expert with the civil liberties group European Digital Rights.

"Once in place the ISPs will feel a commercial pressure to use the filters, for example to boost traffic to websites that pay them more money," he said.

As blocking DNS servers isn't very effective it's clear that other more intrusive measures will follow, he said. "The risk that deep packet inspection will become commonplace in Europe isn't just theoretical. It's already being tested in the U.K.," McNamee said.

Deep packet inspection is a term referring to a method for analyzing not only the header information about data (such as IP address and the time the data moved across a network), but the content of the data itself. Virgin Media is testing the technology in the U.K.

Civil liberties campaigners including McNamee are urging European lawmakers to concentrate efforts on deleting the child abuse material instead of putting up blocks. However, child protection groups from around Europe have come out in defense of the initiative, arguing that blocks are essential in the short term because deleting the material is difficult and can take time.

"We have lobbied for the inclusion of the website blocking plan in the draft directive," said Noreen Khan, a spokeswoman for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a U.K. lobby group among those benefiting from the €300,000 grant from the Commission.

Khan accepted that the blocking plan is controversial but insisted that it is needed in order to save children from being abused "twice over" by having video footage of their ordeals made accessible to all on the Net.

She said that website blocking is a necessary temporary measure to block access to the material while authorities seek to delete the material.

The NSPCC is part of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online (ENACSO), which receives the Commission grant. ENACSO is hosting a lobbying event in the European Parliament next month to try to influence MEPs ahead of debates on the proposed directive due to take place in the coming months.

The first such debate took place in the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament earlier this week. The largest political party in the Parliament, the right-of-center European People's Party appears to support the website blocking plan.

An Italian MEP from the EPP group has been appointed rapporteur on the child exploitation proposal in the Parliamentary committee dealing with civil liberties and justice issues.

As rapporteur she will shepherd the legislative proposal through the committee, and will have considerable influence over the final position the Parliament takes on the shape of the directive.

Other parties including the Liberals, the Greens and the Socialists appear to be lining up against the website blocking plan.

"There was a healthy debate in the committee which is promising," McNamee said, but he added that it remains an uphill battle to get the blocking plan thrown out.

"There are some very effective lobbyists lining up in defense of the plan, and hardly anyone standing up to oppose them," he said.

The Parliament must reach agreement with national governments on the shape of the directive before it can come into force. The National governments haven't yet met to discuss the Commission's draft text, but many are expected to support the website blocking idea.

The only government that has spoken out against the plan so far is the German government. Germany abandoned a plan to block child abuse websites last year, after concluding that blocks are an inefficient tool for such a serious crime.

Germany has since turned its efforts towards deleting child abuse images "with considerable success," McNamee said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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