Sunday, 25 October 2009

Internet content blocking doesn't work and threatens democracy - study

A study "Internet Blocking: Balancing Cybercrime Responses in Democratic Societies" (PDF, 222 pgs) has found (see press release 16 October 2009) that measures which try to block internet content are ineffective:

"Many technical ways exist to get around blocking technologies. More importantly, the blocking measures are intrusive and often abuse fundamental freedoms. These systems either over-block or under-block content and do not prevent the serious offender from gaining access.

“Attempts to block offensive content all too often backfire,” Callanan says. “Technically, it is difficult. Legally, it is problematic. Above all, it represents a real threat to the free transfer of information and conflicts with basic democratic principles.”

The study, by consultants Aconite Internet Solutions, was funded by the Open Society Institute (Wikipedia entry). The individual authors, from several EU countries, are experts in computer science and computer / cybercrime law: Cormac Callanan (Ireland), Marco Gercke (Germany), Estelle De Marco (France) and Hein Dries-Ziekenheiner (Netherlands).

The press release also includes some interesting quotes on the report:

“It is remarkable that this kind of research was not published by the Commission before it launched its proposal for EU-wide blocking of websites. Protection of children is a matter of the utmost importance, but this does not mean that the Commission can propose measures that may well be entirely ineffectual but which will have long-term consequences for the right of freedom of communication in Europe."
Graham Watson MEP, former President of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament

"This study helps to reveal the technological issues and political context regarding the growing debate on cybercrime and internet blocking."
Birgit Sippel MEP, member of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament

This study is particularly timely given increasing efforts to block or censor access to internet websites and other content, or to cut off Net access from citizens who have allegedly accessed illegal content - efforts instituted by governments not just in supposedly repressive regimes but also governments of nations which profess to be democracies, such as the EU -

UK ISP Talktalk recently demonstrated the pointlessness of the UK plans (see further the TalkTalk press release) - and they've even set up a campaign site about it, Don't Disconnect Us.

A recent public survey by YouGov for the Open Rights Group has shown that 70% of those surveyed "said someone suspected of illegal downloading should have a right to a trial in court before restrictions on internet use were imposed" - see Guardian news report.

An attempt (amendment 138) to amend the proposed EU telecoms reform package to ensure that EU citizens' access to the internet can't be cut off without a "prior ruling by a judicial authority" has recently failed, too, so that "internet users suspected of infringing copyright laws could see their connections suspended or face other administrative measures without the need for a court ruling" (EurActiv) - see also the BBC report, and the rather more colourful report by the Swedish Pirate Party's MEP. Will the telecoms reform package go through at all in time?

As a study for the European Commission indicates the economic growth potential inherent in the activities and user-generated content of citizen journalists, bloggers and social networkers, and as 75% of 16 to 24 year olds in the UK feel they can't live without the internet (perhaps a slight exaggeration? but it underlines the importance of the Net to people), there are other serious issues that need to be considered and weighed in the balance before passing laws to allow the disconnection of citizens without trial on mere accusations of illegal downloading.

Perhaps the time and taxpayers' money would be better spent on fighting spam and protecting online privacy instead, as per the European Commission's recent comments following a report for them "Study on activities undertaken to address threats that undermine confidence in the Information Society, such as spam, spyware and malicious software SMART 2008/ 0013".

(Via the excellent QuickLinks.)

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