Tuesday, February 15, 2011

EU web blocking plans curtailed

The EU Commission's stupid plans to mandate EU-wide web blocking as a central element of the proposed directive on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children suffered a setback in the Libe committee (civil liberties committee of the Parliament) yesterday, thanks primarily to the efforts of a small number of digital rights groups, prominent amongst which was EDRI.  Joe McNamee of EDRI says:
"The Civil Liberties Committee of the Parliament this evening, in an “orientation vote” that will set up the negotiations with the Council adopted a text which:
  • rejects mandatory EU-wide blocking
  • removes all references to “self-regulation”
  • removes all references to “non-legislative measures”
What we did not get is a specific obligation on Member States to require a prior judicial ruling before blocking sites nor a ban on countries that currently block. Both of these, in my view, were wholly impossible, but they are still a “stain” on this being a full success. But from absurdly unrealistic to some (intermediate!) success is quite a journey."
A five minute primer on why web blocking is a stupid, counter productive and dangerous approach to tackling child abuse is available on YouTube, Web blocking - How not to create policy. It's not even hard to see why blocking is dangerous and stupid in this context - it leaves the crime scenes online, the criminals at large and the abused kids in danger, whilst enabling the EC and member state governments to pretend that they are "doing something". Implementing a directive to enable authorities to hide their lack of action is just about the worst possible approach to the problem, especially when, in the impact statement for this directive, the EC claim it is needed because they can't trust member states to implement the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children appropriately or sufficiently quickly. 

The mental gymnastics required to get from the point "we've got a vast child protection problem" to "let's do something and hide it" almost beggar belief.  I say "almost" because as March, Olsen and James pointed out with their garbage can decision making model nearly 40 years ago, this kind of thinking is pervasive.  The short version:

  • lots of complex issues, problems and messes are mixed in a metaphorical organisational/political/societal garbage can; 
  • the decision maker is presented with a complex problem; 
  • they are also presented with a "solution" from another part of the garbage; 
  • the two are now inherently and irreparably linked, regardless of whether they have any rational connection or, as in this intance, the solution makes the problem worse.  
  • Then no amount of rational analysis can infuence the modern day, in-the-spotlight, political decision maker into accepting that the "solution" is the wrong one; 
  • cue vast amount of resources getting poured into framing, shaping, selling, promoting, marketing, media management, justifying, attacking opponents, implementing and never regretting the irrational decision/policy.

If a fraction of the energy that went into trying to pass such a directive and collating lists of worst of the worst sites actually went into tracking these abhorent child abusers, taking their servers offline, rescuing the kids involved and successfully prosecuting the offenders, there might be some inroads made into tackling the problem. So viewed purely as a child protection measure alone, web blocking is fundamentally flawed, risky and irrational.

Not to mention the wider impact through mission creep of a future EU wide internet infrastructure constructed on the principles of censorship and privacy invasion (assuming political and commercial pressures lead towards deep packet inspection censorship schemes rather than just keyword and IP address filtering and re-routing).  For a clinical dissection of the proposal Joe McNamee's presentation to the EU parliament hearing last September is hard to beat.