Finnish police are blocking more than 1,000 legal websites, including one belonging to a well-known internet activist, under a secretive system designed to prevent access to foreign sites that contain child pornography, according to a group that advocates for individual rights online.
Among the estimated 1,700 destinations on the secret block list is lapsiporno.info, which has vocally criticized the Finnish censorship program, according to Matti Nikki, the site's creator and a long-time activist.
Of the 700 or sites that have been tested, only two are known to contain inappropriate images of children, said Tapani Tarvainen chairman of the Electronic Frontier Finland (EFFI). The remainder tend to be sites with adult-oriented themes, such as those offering legal porn, and forums for gay sex. In some cases, the sites - which include an online doll store, a Thai Windows advice forum and a computer repair service - have no visible link to porn or sex at all.
The program has its roots in a law passed in late 2006 that was narrowly drafted to filter only foreign websites that contained child porn. To critics, the inclusion of sites like Nikki's, which is located in Finland and contains no pornographic images of any kind, demonstrates the slippery slope that gets started once censorship is allowed.
What's more, the censorship system threatens sites that offer all kinds of content, including political forums blogs and message boards. That's because it requires Finnish internet service providers (ISPs) to block entire web servers, so a single user posting a single inappropriate link has the ability to get an entire service shut out. As a result, plenty of legitimate sites based in the US, Europe and elsewhere, are blocked solely because they share space with a bad actor.
"It's a bit harsh for the Finnish police to tag them as child porn, and it certainly will hurt the reputation of these businesses," Nikki wrote in an email to The Register. "To my knowledge, the censored sites haven't been notified by the police about the situation either."
Nikki fights back
Nikki has compiled a list of sites he's found to be blocked. It contains about 1,000 entries, but he says Finnish police have claimed there are about 1,700 addresses in all. Finnish officials refuse to reveal the criteria for an individual site to get added to the list. Even for those sites that learn they are being censored, there is no clear way for owners to get their site to get removed.
In 2005, Nikki attracted international attention when he analyzed the secret digital rights management rootkit that Sony BMG was installing on users' computers. More recently, he's been an outspoken critic of the Finnish government's censorship plan. Last Tuesday, the EFFI says, the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) added his site to their list, but has refused to say why.
Three days later, Finnish police said they wanted to question him in connection with an investigation to determine whether he aided in the distribution of material violating sexual chastity.
"Without knowing any details, a good guess is that the police suspect that having a clickable link to a web site allegedly containing child pornographic images is equivalent to aiding the distribution of such images," the EFFI surmised in this blog post on the censoring of Nikki's site.
Officials from the NBI weren't available at the time of writing. Helsingin Sanomat reported here that agency official Lars Henriksson defended the program. He said the list includes sites with content that meets the definition of child pornography, including those with links that lead to such pages.
"This is not censorship", Henriksson told the publication.
The irony of the draconian sweep is how easy it is for the censorship to be circumvented. A simple change to the DNS setting of an operating system or router, in which a Finnish ISP's official internet protocol address is substituted with OpenDNS or another alternate provider, is all that's required to get around the block.
Not that this gives Nikki or people at the EFFI any comfort. They worry that officials are already expanding the reach of the law beyond what was contemplated when it was enacted. How long, they ask, until its used to block sites alleged to promote copyright infringement, gambling or racist views? ®