European Commission plans under development for fighting the sexual exploitation of children have run into widespread criticism even before they emerge.
Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for home affairs, will next week propose a directive aimed at blocking paedophile websites. But civil liberties campaigners, a German government minister, and a fellow commissioner have already voiced opposition.
The critics argue that obliging member states to block offensive websites would be ineffective. Child pornography is widely distributed through peer-to-peer networks that operate below website level, they point out. Owners of blocked websites can also easily redirect traffic through a different server and people looking for this type of material can circumvent website blocks by using widely available software.
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Sabine Schnarrenberger, Germany’s justice minister, advised Malmström earlier this week not to include website blocking in the draft law. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, has also urged Malmström to drop the idea.
Malmström defended the blocking plan in a letter to Reding earlier this week. “The draft directive proposes to strengthen different mechanisms in order to block content,” she wrote, adding that the law would block sites that cannot be eliminated, such as websites located outside the EU.
Opponents of Malmström’s approach warn that her focus is a distraction and can be a fig-leaf for inaction. Instead, efforts should be focused on the much tougher task of clamping down on the perpetrators, they argue. “Blocking websites is a sticking-plaster technological solution to a really serious problem,” said Joe McNamee, a civil liberties campaigner with European Digital Rights. “All it does is make the politicians look as if they are addressing the problem,” he added.
The German government has abandoned a law blocking websites, partly influenced by a campaign from an association of abuse victims, which argued against that approach.
Christian Bahls, who founded the association and is himself a child-abuse victim, described as “demagogic” efforts to pass a blocking law in Germany. “To suggest that blocking removes the material is simply dishonest, unacceptable,” he said in a recent documentary aired on German public TV channel NDR.
The Malmström initiative has also prompted fears among civil liberties groups that moves to block child-abuse websites will open the door to further and wider clampdowns on the internet. This, they say, will undermine Europe’s efforts to discourage China, Iran and other countries from censorship of the internet.
France and other member states are discussing introducing website blocking of child-abuse sites. Denmark, Belgium and the UK are already looking beyond child abuse, and debating whether other content could be restricted, such as gambling websites and illegal music file-sharing websites.
The blocking proposal is one of many ideas contained in the draft directive. Others include the criminalisation of so-called child grooming, where child abusers lure youngsters into an intimate relationship, and the harmonisation of penalties for child abuse across the EU. The directive would also define a range of child abuse offences and proposes measures to help the cross-border investigation and prosecution of paedophiles.