Belgium wants in on European web blocklist
When in Bruges, do as the [censored] do
In a brave attempt to generate some international interest in its internal affairs, Belgium declared last week that it intends to join the ranks of European nations operating a hidden list of blocked websites.
The move is controversial, as it would build on existing powers to block websites – but essentially hand jurisdiction over what gets blocked on a day to day basis to the police.
In all likelihood, that means federal police special division Federal Computer Crime Unit (FCCU). They would get the authority to compose the blacklists of to be blocked websites, without any legal safeguards or external oversight mechanisms. The fact that the FCCU has already suggested that this practice should also be applicable in other cases has raised concerns amongst those concerned with uncontrolled and over-zealous censorship of the internet.
The Flemish League for Human Rights (Liga voor Mensenrechten) has criticised the proposal, saying: "The decision to block websites must remain under exclusive authority of the judicial branch. It is unacceptable that the police gets a wild card to block certain websites at will."
The problem is that in Belgium, as in many other European states, there is now a direct clash between a legal process that allows an accused website to argue its case, and a great deal of public pressure for instant action. When the issue of "take-down" was discussed in the UK parliament recently, the influential Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport expressed dismay that some ISPs were taking as long as 24 hours to take down what they considered to be harmful content.
The Belgian proposal has the backing of Minister of Enterprise and Administrative Reform, Vincent Van Quickenborne. He is looking to ban child pornography on the internet through a protocol between ISPs and the Government. However, it has also been suggested that the protocol might extend to other illegal sites, such as hate and racism websites or internet fraud.
As befits a politician granted the title "Ministre... de la simplification", Monsieur Van Quickenborne wants a more flexible mechanism that can be used more quickly to effectively block websites.
The simple easy answer, of granting the police virtually unchecked powers to censor, coupled with the inevitable secrecy surrounding the process, echoes that already put in place or proposed in a number of other European countries. Romania, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Finland already use such filtering in one way or another.
Germany is likely to start putting blocks in place shortly. The UK has engineered a similar result, through the rather uniquely British solution of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). This is not an official government body - however, it too maintains a secret blocklist which is compiled on the basis of close co-operation with the British police.
Critics of this approach, such as Lillian Edwards, Professor of Internet Law at Sheffield University, have tended to focus on the same criticisms. It should not be up to the police to decide what is or is not legal in such an important area: even if expedience requires the police to make an instant judgment call, the matter ought in some form to be referred to a court or other judicial authority for ratification at the earliest possible moment.
The secrecy is also seen as problematic. While acknowledging that making block lists public would be to provide a goldmine of potentially illegal material to sex offenders and the inquisitive alike, the current situation offends against natural justice. In the case of our own IWF, not only is the list secret, but website owners will not be told officially when their sites are added to the list.
For the sake of natural justice, the argument continues, some mechanism for independent review of the list needs to be put in place without compromising the overall objective of blocking access to illegal material. The other problem with "secret" lists is that they tend to be leaked – and when they are, any mistakes quickly become ammunition against the entire process.
As far as we are aware, the only major blocklist that has not yet been leaked in full or in part, is the one belonging to our very own IWF.
El Reg has already reported on oddities found in the (leaked) Danish and Romanian blocklists. Although it is outside the EU’s jurisdiction, the Thailand block list is understood to include hundreds of YouTube videos (including Hillary Clinton's campaign videos) as well as blogs, cartoons, Charlie Chaplin videos and an article in the Economist magazine banned for criticising the Thai king.
In the last six months, Vodafone put in place a new filtering service for its Czech customers, which was publicised as blocking access to dangerous content such as "Child pornography and promotion of racism". Unfortunately, the blocklist also appeared to have included links that included a Facebook group dedicated to opposing internet censorship, a business directory and a transportation site.
The blame for this own goal has been laid at the doors of the IWF, who were alleged to have provided the URLs for the blocklist. Still, a spokeswoman for the IWF was adamant in denying any IWF involvement. She said that "the claim that the list in question comes from the IWF is simply not true".
Undoubtedly, 2009 is going to be the year of the internet filter. It is likely that many more governments will go down the route now being proposed in Belgium - and much argument will be needed before a compromise is achieved that succeeds in protecting both vulnerable individuals and internet freedom. ®