Internet censorship Brussels style

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Internet activists are worried that the EU is following in China's footsteps by adopting a 'Eurofilter' designed to block child pornography. They fear the door to censorship is also being left ajar by a treaty to combat illegal downloading. Their concerns are far from unfounded.

What do Tony the Tiger from the Frosties breakfast cereal ad, the late Thai princess Galyani Vadhana and a Finnish hearing-aid manufacturer have in common? All three have fallen foul of internet censorship. Not in China or North Korea, but right here in Europe.

A condolence page for the princess and an advert for hearing aids ended up on a Finnish list of 1000 supposed child pornography websites. And a British man found himself in court last year for downloading a saucy clip of Tony the Tiger sent to him as a joke.

Blacklist criteria?
Finland and the UK have been imposing a limited form of internet censorship for some time, as have other countries such as Belgium and Poland. And if EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (pictured above) has anything to do with it, filtering will soon be compulsory in the rest of the EU as well.
Her proposal for a European directive makes little mention of monitoring or the criteria that an internet blacklist would have to meet. As things stand, some countries have set up an independent commission to keeps tabs on who is on the list, while other countries leave this task to the police. And that's the way it will stay.
Organisations such as the Dutch-based Bits of Freedom are therefore concerned that Brussels simply plans to adopt the existing lists without further scrutiny, complete with errors. And without giving any victims of mistaken identity the right to defend themselves, since most of the lists are shrouded in secrecy.
Long arm of the law
Internet activists argue that this is not the only danger. In almost all countries that have used a filter to date, censorship was not limited to child pornography alone. Yet, without exception, combating such pornography was given as the reason for imposing the filter.
"Once the infrastructure is in place, you can filter anything you want," warns security officer Alex de Joode of Leaseweb, which manages over two million websites in the Netherlands and abroad. "The long arm of the law can become very long indeed."
For example, Sweden used the child porn filter to block access to download website The Pirate Bay. German politicians are toying with the idea of using the filter to combat extreme-right propaganda, and a number of countries - including the Netherlands - are looking at the possibility of blocking foreign casino websites.
Leaseweb has meanwhile developed its own filter. As security officer Alex de Joode explains, "Among two million sites there are bound to be things that have to be weeded out." Before he joined Leaseweb, Alex was one of the founders of a hotline to report cases of child pornography in the Netherlands.
Illegal downloads
The next battleground is already being determined by ACTA, the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement that the European Union is negotiating with other countries, most notably the United States. The agreement is aimed at halting the replication and illegal downloading of films, music and other products.
But, as a journalist remarked at a meeting on ACTA in Brussels, so far the only estimates of the damage caused by such practices come from the entertainment industry itself. And the industry operates on the unlikely premise that if a 12-year-old boy downloads 1000 films, the income lost equals the price of 1000 DVDs that he would otherwise have purchased.
In this regard too, there is a risk that Brussels will be too hasty in giving the nod to a solution it is barely able to monitor. The fear that internet censorship is knocking at the door is understandable to say the least.