Today a number of large Canadian ISPs announced that they are partnering with Project Cleanfeed, meaning they will now actively block access to web sites that (supposedly) contain child pornography. This is accomplished using an actual list of sites that have been investigated by cybertip.ca and found to contain such content.
This is a bad idea, for several reasons.
Banning or restricting access to any type of content (no matter how objectionable) on the internet is dangerous because it may lead to an abuse of the practice, a very real possibility. It is not difficult to extend the list to other sites that someone else deems objectionable, such as hate speech, hacking sites, gambling, legal pornography, sites that may infringe copyright, etc. This is not a hypothetical possibility: this comment shows what happens when this is abused: IFPI got a Danish court to extend that country’s child pornography blacklist to include Allofmp3.com.
Some countries have an cutoff for child pornography that is lower than Canada’s. Will this blacklist cut off access to those sites that are legal in other countries? While it is still illegal in Canada to access such sites, there is no question that, morally, they do not fall into the same category as ‘real’ (i.e. prepubescent) child pornography. The same goes for, e.g., written child pornography that is legal in countries such as the United States. This falls too close to having a third party legislate morality for my comfort.
Without extensive oversight to detemine that the list is being properly administered, there is a serious risk that legitimate web sites will be blacklisted. This list is not available to the public; of course, it is not likely to be made available to the public because doing so would essentially provide a list of sites to anyone who wants to access child pornography. However, without oversight, there is no way of knowing whether or not a web site that cannot be accessed is being blocked without going through an appeal process. What about sites such as NAMBLA or Boychat? Though legal, they could easily get caught up in such an ill-considered scheme. Somehow I suspect that the appeal process is not going to be optimized in favour of assuming that sites have been blacklisted in error. Cory Doctorow points out the sheer extent of the problems that could arise here:
The idea is fundamentally broken. First of all, it seems to me that keeping a secret list of “evil” content is inherently subject to abuse. This is certainly something we’ve seen in every single other instance of secret blacklisting: axe-grinding, personal vendettas, and ass-covering are the inevitable outcome of a system in which there is absolute authority, no due process, and no accountability.
The appeals process is likewise flawed. If the self-appointed censors opt to block, for example, material produced by and for gay teens about their sexuality (a common “edge-case” in child porn debates), then teens will have to out themselves as gay to avail themselves of the appeals process.
Notwithstanding this, it’s hard to imagine how an appeals process would unfold. How could someone who wanted a site unblocked marshal a cogent argument for his case unless he could see the content and determine whether it was being inappropriately blocked?
Likewise, there is no imaginable way in which such a system could possibly be comprehensive in blocking child porn. It will certainly miss material that is genuinely child pornography. The Internet is too big for such a list to be compiled, and the censorship problems are compounded as the lists grow.
If, for example, Canada were to import Australia’s secret list of bad sites, then Canadians would then be subject to the potential abuses of unscrupulous (or unintelligent) censors in Australia, as well as in Canada. You’d have to trust the Canadian censor-selector process, and the Australian one. The longer lists that would emerge from the merger process would be harder to audit — the haystacks of real porn larger, the needles of censorship smaller.
Worst of all is the problem of site-level blocking for user-created content sites like Blogger, Typepad, Geocities, YouTube, etc. These sites inevitably contain child porn and other objectionable material, because new, anonymous accounts can be created there by people engaged in bad speech. However, these sites are also the primary vehicle by which users express their own feelings and beliefs and are frequently posted to anonymously by whistle-blowers, rape victims, dissidents in totalitarian states and others who have good reason to hide their identities.
Furthermore, this is not going to work. Anyone actively trafficking in child pornography is presumably familiar with anonymizing techinques, such as using anonymous proxies, TOR, darknets, etc. By pushing them towards these techinques, they will become harder to track, which does nothing to help law enforcement or to make children safer, and it also puts pressure on services such as TOR, which is supposed to be used for, e.g., political speech in repressive regimes.
It is, moreover, not clear to me that this will serve any kind of useful purpose. Is there any proof that preventing access to child pornographic web sites makes children safer? That it makes pedophiles less likely to offend? One could argue that accessing child pornography acts as a release for many pedophiles rather than an incitement and therefore makes them less likely to offend. Moral objections to child pornography are spurious; the only reasonable justification for this action is if it actually makes children safer. I worry that this may make children less safe by making it more difficult to track suspected pedophiles. If anyone is aware of any research that explicitly demonstrates that this helps children, please post in the comments below.
The only good thing about this is that it is a voluntary action taken by the ISPs, which means it is not as yet mandated by government regulation. In addition, as Michael Geist points out, the difference between child pornography and other objectionable content that I outlined above is that merely accessing child pornography is a criminal offence in this country. Geist argues that this will provide a natural barrier to extending the blacklist to other sites; for the reasons I outline above, I am skeptical of this view.
As a matter of priciple, no ISP should be taking action to restrict access to any website. The reason the internet is such a powerful medium is because, historically, it has allowed full free access to anything that anyone cares to publish online. I have no interest in visiting child pornographic web sites, but I do not want my websurfing to be hampered by potentially arbitrary network-level blocking. This action risks creating a precedent that allows ISPs to arbitrarily restrict access to online content. That, in turn, will compromise the internet’s effectiveness as a tool to promote free speech both locally and globally. We should always err on the side of protecting free speech.