With a crushing majority of 40 in favour, 0 against and 5 abstentions, the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament has voted against a European Commission proposal to introduce mandatory EU-wide web blocking. This comes as a result of a campaign by European Digital Rights, supported by organisations such as the German Association of Child Abuse Victims against Web Blocking and the European ISP Association.
In the year since the original proposal was launched, parliamentarians have grown increasingly concerned by the lack of vision of the European Commission regarding the proposal’s aims. At meeting after meeting, commission representatives and the commissioner herself were unable to provide any evidence that blocking would serve a purpose, they were not even able to be clear on what blocking was meant to achieve.
They started by saying that blocking would “disrupt” commercial child-porn networks, until their own research showed that this is a small and diminishing problem. Then they said it was to stop accidental access, until they were unable to show this was an actual problem or that blocking would help. Finally, they said that it would help victims psychologically — although any policy which leaves abuse images on the internet is hardly likely to do this. The permanent retreat into ever-more facile arguments eventually started grating on parliamentarians who, like the citizens they represent, deserve better. A restriction on the right to communication cannot be based on soundbites and gut reactions.
At the same time, parliamentarians became increasingly aware of the damage that existing blocking systems are doing to both child protection and fundamental rights in those countries where it is already imposed. They saw how countries like Denmark and Sweden create blocking lists outside the rule of law, sometimes leaving whole websites abroad blocked but with no way of even knowing — the accusatory and defamatory blocking page being shown only to people in the countries doing the blocking.
The blocking approach in Denmark, Sweden and the UK breaks every element of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is neither “necessary” nor is it “prescribed by law” in those countries. How can child abuse material have such a low priority that its regulation is the only crime which does not require countermeasures to be laid down in law? Worse still, once the blocking veil is cast thoughtlessly and lawlessly over the allegedly illegal sites abroad and over government inaction to have the websites removed, countries promptly lose the will to take even minimal measures to address the crime. A Danish police official, for example, said in a speech to the German Federal Parliament that they don’t see any need to send reports of these serious crimes to the United States or Russia. Which other serious crime would be treated in this way? Why does blocking destroy the will of governments to treat online child abuse with the seriousness it deserves? Why would child protection organisations ever dream of supporting such a counterproductive measure?
This is the essence of the text agreed by the European Parliament’s Committee on the evening of 14 February. The text demands effective action against the crimes — it demands supervision of the member states’ efforts through a yearly report on their activities. It removes the obligation on member states to introduce blocking and places new measures on member states that insist on blocking in order to at least move in the direction of respect for basic fundamental rights. It chooses concrete child protection measures over symbols, excuses and failure. 14 February… a day to start loving the European Parliament.
Joe McNamee works as Advocacy Coordinatory for European Digital Rights in Brussels (EDRi). He works on issues related to privacy, cybercrime, intellectual property, freedom of information/communication and related topics.