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Dutch providers abandon "ineffective" web blocking

The largest Dutch internet providers were in the process of blocking websites on the basis of blacklists provided by the Dutch hotline. Bits of Freedom has always insisted that the blocking of websites with images of sexual child abuse is a counterproductive measure. A letter written by the ISPs and the Dutch hotline indicates that they share the views of Bits of Freedom in this regard, that web-blocking is not an effective measure to fight child abuse images online. 

The letter was sent to the Dutch Minister of Justice on 10 November 2010, but officially released only in the beginning of March 2011 (i.e. after the publication of the report of the European Parliament which also touched on web blocking). The original file (Dutch) can be found here (PDF). An unofficial translation of the letter can be found below:

“Dear Sir,

On behalf of the Task Force on the Blocking of Child Pornography I would like to report to you on the progress being made with regard to the selfregulation-initiative regarding the blocking of images depicting the sexual abuse of children (“child pornography”). The Task Force is part of the Platform for Internet safety (“The Platform”), in which your Ministry also participates. The Platform seeks to offer a structural contribution to improve consumer safety on the internet. We want to accomplish this by maintaining an open dialogue and a joint effort towards concrete agreements and initiatives, by the market, the government and NGOs. The issue of blocking child pornography is, due to its social relevance, one of the concrete focus points of the Platform.

On behalf of the Task Force Blocking Child Pornography, I hereby let you know that the participating members are making good progress in making arrangements which are necessary to implement the blocking of child pornography websites. The parties reached agreement on important issues, such as:

– The criteria for a blacklist;
– The option of complaining about the blacklist and the way these complaints will be handled;
– Several aspects of technical and security related issues;
– Method of blocking; and
– The organization (such as the independent Child Abuse Hotline).

Several parties involved have shown their willingness – and committed corresponding funds – to jointly start blocking on the basis of a blacklist drafted by the Task Force on the blocking of Child Pornography.

However, we have been made aware of developments, of which the Hotline has reported to us, which compel us to inform you.

The focus of our attention over the past months has been aimed at the content and scope of the blacklist of websites containing images of sexual child abuse. The Child Abuse Hotline, as an independent expert organization, has drafted a report on this. This shows that the number of commercial websites with images of sexual child abuse in 2010 has drastically reduced when since the beginning of these initiatives. According to the notifications received at the Hotline, other internet services are increasingly being used to distribute images of sexual child abuse.

This corresponds to the experience in the United Kingdom (“UK”), which can be considered leading with regard to the filtering and blocking of child pornography. The size of the blacklist of the English Hotline, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), has shrunk significantly in the past two years (from approximately 2000 websites per day on the list to less than 400). Even while in the UK much broader criteria are being applied for registration on the blacklist. These include, for example, all countries but the UK, so also all countries with which The Netherlands has signed treaties or concluded agreements and which would consequently not be listed on the Dutch black list on the basis of the criteria you indicated to Parliament. Translated to the Dutch situation, this trend implies that at this stage there are currently almost no websites which can be blocked.

Initiatives for filtering and blocking web sites containing child pornography started around 2006. Meanwhile the possibilities of the internet, for example as a result of the popularity of internet services and software where internet users can easily exchange (large) files. In addition, efforts to track down child pornography online and the public attention directed towards the distribution of child pornography via the internet have increased significantly, both on a national and an international level. These developments may explain why the number of commercial web sites distributing child pornography has dwindled in recent years.

Based on the reports of the Child Abuse Hotline we have come to the preliminary conclusion that, in light of these developments, blocking websites containing child pornography by means of a blacklist can no longer serve as a reliable and effective way to contribute to fighting child pornography on the internet. It was already known that blocking is not a 100% effective method, but rather we could apply this as an extra barrier against (undirected) access. We have transformed this willingness in concrete actions.

The research of the Hotline currently leads us to conclude that the blocking of child pornography in the way propagated by our Task Force does not contribute to the jointly formulated goal and therefore cannot be employed effectively.
Naturally, with regard to child pornography we will remain willing to implement the currently developed form of blocking if research and developments would compel us to do so.

All parties see the importance and necessity of continued cooperation in this field. This is why we remain emphatically available for further consultation. The (inter)national developments and initiatives will be permanently inventoried in the Task Force on Blocking Child Pornography of the Platform for Internet Safety. We continue to assess potential new activities with you and other involved parties and will continuously weigh whether, in the Dutch situation, further development of these initiatives is deemed viable and socially acceptable.

The members of the Task Force on Blocking Child Pornography advise you to publish this letter and make it available for deliberations in the Parliament.

Naturally, we remain available to provide further information at all times.

Kind regards,

On behalf of the Task Force on Blocking Child Pornography,
Arie van Bellen”

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