Finnish scandal unmasks censorship tactics

For some time it has been known that law enforcement authorities in Norway and Finland have prepared lists of alleged child pornography web sites, and demanded that local Internet service providers block access to them. The lists were rumoured to contain about 1000-1700 sites. This model of blocking access was avidly picked up by Internet law enforcement authorities in other countries, including the Netherlands, where pressure has been placed on ISPs to block these sites or risk being publicly smeared as aiding and abetting child abuse.

Using ISPs as intermediaries for censorship is a bad idea because mandated site blocking violates the principle of net neutrality. Truly illegal content should be handled by prosecuting the producers, publishers and hosts of the content rather than through attempts to block and control Internet access on a territorial basis. Governments, however, claim that they must block access because of the heinousness of child abuse and because the heinous sites were out of the reach of local law enforcement. Many people have bought that argument.

Until now. Recently, Finnish activists got their hands on the Finnish government's official list of blocked sites. The results of their discovery are astounding. Most of the censored sites are located either in the United States or EU countries — in other words, they are NOT outside of the law's reach and it would be perfectly feasible for the authorities to prosecute the publishers of the material. As Electronic Frontier Foundation of Finland's Leena Romppainen said, “The local authorities have taken no action on these sites. Therefore, either the sites do not contain child pornography or the NBI has not informed the local authorities. Both of the alternatives are equally scary.”

Equally disturbing, most of the sites on the blocking list are not child pornography sites at all, but legal adult pornography sites. A few are not even porn sites at all. And in one case, a site that actively criticized the Finnish government's censorship and blocking policies was added to the list of censored sites, probably because in publishing the domains and IP addresses of the blocked sites, the government accused them of becoming a “portal” to illegal content. Or were they simply being punished for unmasking the deception?

This scandal shows that when governments promulgate lists of sites to be blocked, they circumvent due process of law and allow the definition of what is “illegal” content to reflect the whims of some unaccountable bureaucrat. Let's hope that this incident is widely publicized and serves to discredit once and for all government-mandated blocking as a mechanism for dealing with illegal content. It also shows how scare tactics about child abuse can be used as the cover for attempts to censor legal content.

You can see Finnish activist Matti Nikki's list of censored sites here. The data show that the overwhelming majority of the blocked sites are located in the United States, where child pornography is indeed illegal. A significant number of others are in the Netherlands, another country where there is pressure to block sites and where the authorities have all the tools they need to take down the sites and prosecute the owners/publishers if indeed the content is illegal. Great Britain and Germany also appear frequently on the list. Only a handful are located in the Russian Federation, Czech Republic or other jurisdictions reputed to be non-cooperative with EU and US law enforcement efforts.

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