The European Commission will next week propose a directive designed to fight the sexual exploitation of children, but a clause obliging member states to block pedophile websites has sparked widespread criticism from civil liberties advocates, a German government minister and from within the Commission itself.
The critics argue that blocking websites fails to eliminate the material that appears on the internet, and that by focusing on blocking instead of devoting efforts to the much tougher task of eliminating the odious material, the law will fail to have much impact on the world of online child abuse.
Many also fear that the move to block abusive websites will open the door to further clampdowns on the internet and will undermine Europe's efforts to encourage China, Iran and other countries to permit openness on the internet.
Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom was advised earlier this week not to include the website blocking idea in the draft law by German Justice Minister Sabine Schnarrenberger.
Before that she was contacted by justice, fundamental rights and citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding, who also urged Malmstrom to drop the idea.
Malmstrom defended the blocking plan in a letter to Reding earlier this week. "The draft directive proposes to strengthen different mechanisms in order to block content," she wrote, adding that the law would block sites that can't be eliminated, such as those located outside the EU.
Internet experts warn that blocking sites that exploit children won't work for three reasons. First, the website owner can easily find a way around the block by redirecting the site, for example, through a different web server computer. Second, people looking for this type of material can easily circumvent blocks on the websites they want to see using legal, and easily available, software tools. But, most importantly, the creators of the disgusting images operate below the website level, using peer-to-peer networks to distribute their material.
These networks can't be affected by blocking websites, said Joe McNamee, an internet expert and civil liberties advocate with European Digital Rights.
"Blocking websites is a sticking-plaster technological solution to a really serious problem," he said. "All it does is make the politicians look as if they are addressing the problem."
Christian Bahls, a child abuse victim from Germany who set up an association of abuse victims who are against website blocking, also suspects that politicians are using the sensitive issue to their political advantage. He described efforts to pass a blocking law in Germany as "demagogic" in a recent documentary aired on German public TV channel NDR.
"To suggest that blocking removes the material is simply dishonest, unacceptable," he said.
His campaign helped push the German government to abandon the blocking law. "The law was passed ahead of elections in Germany and was cynically used as an election theme," Bahls said in a phone interview.
"After the election the law wasn't enacted," he added.
Many EU member states including France are discussing the introduction of website blocking of child abuse sites. Some including Denmark, the UK and Belgium are already looking beyond child abuse and debating whether other content should be restricted, such as gambling websites and illegal music file-sharing websites.
Blocking would require ISPs (internet service providers) to install filtering devices. Once those filters are in place, the ISPs will come under increasing pressure to use them from all kinds of interest groups whose businesses may be threatened by competition from the internet, McNamee said.
"I really wish I could believe that blocking was technically adequate and that it wouldn't leak into other areas and other technologies and that it wouldn't be used globally as an excuse for international rollout of such systems. I wish I could, but I can't," he said.