Germany’s main political parties have agreed the text of legislation designed to enshrine the blocking of selected internet sites in law.
Critics of the plan insist that take down would be more effective – and express concerns that however well-intentioned a block list, it would forever be open to abuse by the state.
The text of the new measure was agreed by Germany’s two main political parties - the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats - on Monday night, although at time of writing, further work was being carried out by the Family Ministry, and a final text was not yet agreed.
It empowers German federal police to put together a block list containing the domain names and IP addresses of websites hosting and linking to child porn. Anyone attempting to visit sites on this list would be redirected by their ISPs to a site hosting a warning message in the form of a red Stop sign.
Following opposition from ISPs and anti-censorship activists, legislators have removed provisions that would have required ISPs to log every attempt to access a blocked site and to inform law enforcement agencies. Opponents pointed out that such a move could criminalise – or raise unwarranted suspicions – over anyone who clicked a link by accident, or was misdirected to it by a hacker.
Barring parliamentary accident, it looks like this measure will be introduced tomorrow (Thursday) and could be law by the end of the week.
However, the determination of German politicians – particularly Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen – has been matched by the emergence of equally fierce opposition from an ad hoc and wide-ranging coalition of German Internet users and civil liberties campaigners.
An official online petition against the bill has attracted more than 130,000 signatures, whilst the sheer number of individuals trying to sign up to it appears to have crashed the German parliament’s web infrastructure on more than one occasion.
Bloggers and twitterers are in on the act too: if you want to follow what is being said about this issue online, look for #zensursula – a hash tag that combines the German word for censorship with the first name of the alleged prime mover behind this law.
Even if, as seems likely, the German parliament ploughs ahead and gives state-sponsored internet blocking the full weight of the law, the debate has raised a number of issues that should have relevance to similar debates going on elsewhere around the world.
Critics have been concerned that a central block-list of this kind is open to abuse: even if function creep does not result in it being expanded to deal with unpalatable political material, lobbying from publishers and music companies could see it being extended to defend them from what they consider to be abuse of copyright.
In addition, as part of the campaign against this law, cyber activist Alvar Freude analysed a number of block lists currently made public on Wikileaks and then used a script to send out automated takedown requests to the sites’ hosting providers. According to Freude, 250 out of 348 providers responded, and 61 sites were taken down within the first 12 hours.
He commented: "Taking down these sites doesn’t take longer than sending block lists to ISPs."
More to the point, this exercise underlines the accusation levelled by objectors, that government and police are more interested in putting in place an apparatus that is capable of controlling web users than in dealing with the real problems of sites that publish abusive material.
This is a real issue that will not go away - and further highlights the complacency of British legislators who in this week's Digital Britain report proclaim that the UK's solution to child abuse images on the internet - the Internet Watch Foundation - is a model for the rest of the world, without demonstrating the least awareness of the serious questions now being raised in respect of the use of block lists. ®