Swedish EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström wants to introduce ”filtering” of the Internet, to block sites that are accused of spreading child pornography. She believes this would be an effective way to reduce sexual child abuse in the world.
I and The Pirate Party disagree with her, and think that censorship of the Internet is a bad idea. If there are sites on the net that are illegally distributing pictures of sexual child abuse, we think that the sites should be shut down and the perpetrators put in jail, after a proper trial. But we do not accept censorship that is carried out in secrecy and without due process.
A couple of weeks ago, on April 7, I got the chance to have a debate about this proposal for Internet censorship with Cecilia Malmström on Swedish radio. The debate was in Swedish, but I have translated it here from the transcript in Swedish that some net activists did.
The radio program started with an interview with a policeman from the Swedish Police’s Child Pornography Group, who first gave some background about the system that is in place in Sweden since 2005. I have not translated that part, so I’ll summarize the background.
Sweden has a ”voluntary” system for blocking, where the major internet service providers block certain sites according to a list supplied by the police and updated regularly. If your computer tries to go to a web site that is on the list, it will be redirected to a stop page.
The policeman from the Child Pornography Group said that the stop page has about 50,000 hits per day. (This number has since been put in question.)
He confirmed that it is technically relatively easy to circumvent the blocking, but he did not think that it is very common that people who want to access these pages know how to do it.
He mentioned Ukraine as a big distributor of child pornography, but also said that many of the servers are located in the US.
After this introduction, it was time for the debate between Ms. Malmström and me. In the translated version here, I have added links to references for some of the things that were said in the debate.
[14:32] Reporter: With us from a studio in the EU Commission in Brussels is Cecilia Malmström, Sweden’s EU Commissioner. Welcome to the program.
[14:39] Malmström: Thank you.
[14:42] Reporter: Tell us about this law proposal that you have made about blocking child porn sites.
[14:49] Malmström: It is part of a bigger package to combat sexual abuse of children, so there are seveal propsals about punishments and harmonization, support for victims, treatment etc. But this particular part is about the problem that there are so many child pornography sites around. We are proposing that the member states should block them.
This can be done in various different ways. One way is to do it like in Sweden. This is a good solution that is also used in Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Great Britain. Another way is to legislate. This has been done in Italy and Finland, and is on its way in Belgium and France as well.
At the same time, the member states should of course also do what the policeman talked about, to try to close them down at the source, so to speak. But they often have their web hotels in countries that are difficult to cooperate with, where we don’t have this kind of agreements. So we propose that we should do both, and that it is up to the member states do decide exactly how it should be done.
[15:47] Reporter: What do you think can be achieved with a law like this?
[15:54] Malmström: First, it sends an important signal that these are horrible pictures that are being produced. Every time somebody looks at them the children are violated. This is an assault on the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Also, it is a way to always ”keep pushing” to make it more and more difficult to access, to reduce demand. Just like the policeman says here, it is a way to fight it. It doesn’t work one hundred percent, of course, but as the Swedish experience shows, it can be fairly effective.
[16:15:] Reporter: But you are saying that the Swedish voluntary system is good, but you would like to go further?
[16:31] Malmström: No, I’m not saying that. It is good that the member states close down. We want the member states to block these sites. This can be done in different ways. It can be done like in Sweden and many other countries, or it can be done via legislation. There are different techniques, and the Commission has no opinion on this. The sites should be blocked and closed down.
[16:52] Reporter: But 15% of Sweden is not covered by the voluntary agreement.
[16:58] Malmström: Yes, but that means that 85% is, so we get quite a few in this way.
[17:02] Reporter: Let’s welcome Christian Engström, Member of the European Parliament for The Pirate Party, who is with us from another studio in Brussels.
[17:10] Reporter: You say that this proposal is censorship. How do you mean?
[17:14] Engström: Yes, it is censorship. It’s about blocking certain sites, so it’s censorship. And that’s what’s so worrying about this proposal. Of course nobody likes pictures of child abuse, that’s completely uncontroversial. Everybody is against it, and it’s illegal in all countries. To the extent that this kind of pictures are openly circulated on the net, it is very, very uncommon, simply because it is illegal in all countries, and most people find it revolting.
[17:40] Reporter: Before we go on, how do you know that it is very, very uncommon?
[17:47] Engström: Because I know a lot of pirates who are very good at finding things on the Internet. They all say the same thing: There isn’t a lot of child pornography openly available. I’m sure it happens that child pornography is exchanged, but this is done in closed circles. If you’re interested in child pornography it’s hardly something you advertise on your own blog. It’s highly criminal in all countries, and there is a very low tolerance for it among basically all people.
[18:20] Reporter: But we heard the policeman from the Child Pornography Group say that there are 50,000 redirections per day. That seems to indicate a certain level of interest.
[18:30] Engström: No, that indicates that the so called ”child pornography list” contains other things than child pornography. This is clear from what the policeman said later. He says that most of the servers are in the US. If it had been pictures of sexual abuse of children, that would have been as illegal in the US as it is in any European country. If that was the case, the police would of course have taken them down. But it isn’t that kind of sites.
[18:58] Reporter: So you mean that in practice this kind of blocking does not primarily hit child porn sites?
[19:10] Engström: Exactly, child pornography is illegal everywhere, and virtually everybody finds it horrible. If it is openly available it will be reported to the police. The blocking list that the police has has been leaked, and when people have gone through the list, it turns out to be regular porn sites.
[19:31] Reporter: Cecilia Malmström, what do you say? You are attacking regular porn sites that are not illegal, according to Christian Engström.
[19:40] Malmström: With all due respect for The Pirate Party and your members and followers, I’m sure that you are not looking for child pornography sites. There are a lot of child pornography sites out there on the net. This is a big problem, according to the police in all EU member states, so it is not true that it is a marginal problem. And even if it were only a few, it is a horrible assault on sometimes very young children.
To call it censorship to try to close that down is to misunderstand what censorship is. Censorship is about opinions, freedom of speech. There is no freedom of speech to distribute child pornography, there is no human right to watch it. On the contrary, it’s illegal to have such films and to have such books. They should be shut down, sites like that on the net.
[20:21] Reporter: Christian Engström?
[20:30] Engström: Yes, we are quite agree, in that case they should be shut down. If there are sites that are openly distributing pictures of child abuse, then the sites should be shut down. But what Cecilia Malmström is proposing is to just put a blanket over the problem to hide it.
[20:47] Reporter: And what do you mean is the problem with a blanket?
[20:50] Engström: If there are this kind of pictures out in the open, then the police should of course close down the site, and find the people responsible for it and put them in prison. I find it very strange when Cecilia Malmström is saying that it is difficult to cooperate with the US, I can’t understand that. If this is true it is regrettable, but this is very sharp criticism she is directing at the United States, one of our major trade partners.
[21:20] Malmström: I didn’t say that! You…
[21:25] Reporter: But Cecilia Malmström. This sounds very simple according to Christian Engström.
[21:29] Malmström: Yes, but it isn’t. I wouldn’t put forward this proposal if it wasn’t a serious problem.
What we do in Sweden is that internet service providers block access, we have done it since 2005. It has been going on for five years, this thing that Christian Engström calls censorship. Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, and The Netherlands also do it. These are hardly countries that are known for trying to curb freedom of speech.
And it is a big problem. The policeman mentioned 50,000 attempts. It’s possible that the numbers are a bit exaggerated, but I’ve heard similar numbers from other countries.
And of course we should shut them down at the source. We of course cooperate with the US, but it is a giant problem in the US that they can’t get them because they change web hotels several times a day. They’re in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian authorities have recently admitted the problem. We cooperate with them too, but it’s not always easy. Many other web hotels are in rather peripheral countries that we have very little cooperation with, and then I’m not talking about the US or Ukraine.
It’s hard to shut them down, but of course we should do both these things in parallel, there is no conflict. What we are proposing from the Commission is exactly what Sweden has been doing for five years. No more than that, or if you want to solve it in some other way.
[22:42] Engström: But what the policeman said, and what has also become clear when this kind of lists have been leaked and people have analyzed them, is that most of the sites are in the US. If we focus on them, perhaps things aren’t quite as simple as Cecilia Malmström claims. Because if they had been illegal, they would have been illegal in the US as well.
[23:01] Reporter: I would like to ask Cecilia Malmström: You have faced the same criticism from the German government, which says it is far more effective to focus on shutting the pages down. How do you respond to this criticism?
[23:18] Malmström: No, I think we should do both. We should shut down when we can, but this is a problem. There are lots of studies showing this, and I’ll be happy to send these to Christian Engström. They show that the sites reappear several times a day on new hosting companies that are not accessible to the police. So this is a very complex problem.
Yes, there has been som criticism in Germany, although we have received a lot of support from Germany as well. And among virtually all the other member states there is large support. All organizations that work with children, such as ECPAT and Save the Children, have also expressed firm support. But it is true that there is criticism in Germany against this.
[23:48] Reporter: Christian Engström, Cecilia Malmström said earlier that this law proposal is an important signal to show that this is wrong. The children are violated again every time these pictures are distributed. You say that this proposal is censorship, but what do you want to do instead? How should we tackle the basic problem?
[24:15] Engström: Everybody is against child pornography being distributed.
[24:16] Reporter: Yes, but you’re a politician. What should we do?
[24:17] Engström: What we should do is to close down the sites immediately. And we can. When it comes to so called ”phishing” sites, that is, sites that pretend to be banks to trick people out of their account numbers etc., they are closed down within four hours of being reported. So it is possible to do things against criminal sites.
But what Cecilia Malmström is proposing is something different. Since the US isn’t interested in sending the police at these sites, there is something not quite right in her reasoning.
The problem with block lists is that nobody has any control over what is added. For a long time, the Swedish block list contained the site koreabonsai.com, which is a completely legitimate site about bonsai trees in Korea. It is unclear how it came to be included in the list in the first place, but in any case it was. They blocked the political site kopimi.com, which is a pirate related site that expresses certain political opinions, and in 2008 the were planning to block The Pirate Bay in this manner. Censorship carried out in secret doesn’t work.
[25:22] Reporter: We’ll end here. Thank you Christian Engström, Pirate Party Member of the European Parliament, and Sweden’s EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.
The debate has continued in the weeks that have passed since this radio program.
I have written several blog entries about the proposal. So far most of them have been in Swedish, but I expect to be writing more about it in English in the future.
This is a matter that concerns all citizens of Europe.
Previous articles in English on Ms. Malmström’s Internet Censorship Directive: