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Critic of Finnish Censorship Censored

Blocking system is prone to “abuse and unjust decisions” and lacks transparency and accountability, says critic.
Critic of Finnish Censorship Censored
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Feb 20, 2008 11:00 AM PST    Text size: 
HELSINKI — A Finnish governmental program designed to block access to websites displaying or distributing child pornography is now blocking access to the site of one the program’s critics, Matti Nikki, webmaster of Lapsiporno.info.

The block is raising questions about both the efficacy and purpose of the government’s campaign.

While the blocking effort was reportedly initiated to combat the spread of child pornography online, according to EFFI.org, the website for the Finnish free speech group Electronic Frontier Finland, the government’s campaign has resulted in the blocking of sites that contain no pornography at all, child or otherwise.

Early last week, the website Lapsiporno.info, reportedly was added to the government’s block list after publishing articles critical of the government’s campaign. The domain name translates as “childpornography.info,” but according to EFFI and Nikki the site never displayed any child porn images. The articles on the site argue that merely blocking suspicious domains is not an effective approach to combating the spread of child porn.

“Among other things, I’m criticizing that completely legit material gets censored as child porn,” Nikki told XBIZ. “Further, I’m criticizing the whole practice of censorship where the sites added to the list have no right to be heard or aren’t even notified of the situation.”

According to Nikki and EFFI, the Finnish government has not only blocked sites suspected of displaying or linking to child pornography but also sites that sell hearing aids, provide IT consulting services for teachers, offer computer repair services, advocate gay rights and other websites that have nothing whatsoever to do with child porn.

Nikki said that since the government’s list is “officially secret,” there is no oversight, making it prone to “abuse and unjust decisions.”

“There is apparently a mere one man who is responsible for the censorship decisions in the Finnish Police, and he gets to decide what’s blocked as ‘illegal’ and what isn’t,” Nikki said. “The police also refuse to tell why any specific sites on the list are blocked.”

According to EFFI, Finnish police have refused to discuss their blocking of Lapsiporno.info, which was put on the block list on or about Feb 12.

One of Nikki’s criticisms of the program is that by blocking sites and taking no further action, the authorities have done nothing to address the problem of online child porn. Blocking might keep Finnish web surfers from viewing the site in question, but it accomplishes nothing in terms of eliminating the site itself.

“I also believe that child porn sites should be shut down, not merely put on some block list and then forgotten,” Nikki said. “I’ve seen it happen several times that I’ve reported a commercial child porn site to a hotline or other authorities and the site has just gotten itself added into some block list and left running. This isn’t happening just in Finland, it seems to be the case everywhere.”

Joan Irvine, the executive director of ASACP, told XBIZ that the overreaching site-blocking in Finland is a good example of why screening based on words alone does not work.

“You want to consider the words that appear on a site, and you can certainly take a look at sites based on what text a ‘spider’ or other program finds on a site — but you have to actually look at the sites to know the context,” Irvine said. “Most of the time, the only place we’ll find the words ‘child pornography’ will be in a legitimate site’s terms of service.”

For example, hosting companies frequently state in their TOS that they will terminate service for any site that posts child porn images. While a spider might flag such a statement due to the words themselves, obviously such a site should not be labeled a child porn site, Irvine noted.

“The bottom line is that blocking based on words alone does not work,” Irvine said. “I don’t personally have a problem with governments blocking sites that they have reason to believe are child porn sites, but that’s why you have to look at the site — you can not make those judgments based just on text.”

As to what led Finnish authorities to block his site, Nikki conceded, “I did provoke them a little.”

After Finnish police stated that they would classify sites that link to child pornography as child porn sites as well, Nikki responded by making the list of blocked domains on his site clickable. He now believes this was the reason his site was blocked by authorities.

“After this, they put me into [the] block list and have suggested that my site is now a ‘child porn portal,’” Nikki said. “I don’t think this tiny technical detail of links being ‘clickable’ has anything to do with what makes some site a ‘child porn portal.’ I actually find it quite offensive that they would suggest my site is such a thing.”

Nikki believes the practice does nothing to stop child pornographers from distributing child porn and that there are other measures the Finnish government should be taking.

“Child porn [distributors] utilize a lot of other illegal and frowned-upon things on the net, and finding ways to fight other forms of computer crimes will also help with [fighting] online distribution of child porn,” Nikki said. “Commercial child porn sites need to find their customers, and they often use spam to achieve this. They might utilize cracked servers, and they need to launder the money they make. That's three things where improvements would help slow down child porn sales — eliminate spam, focus on efforts to make all computers on the Internet more secure, work on ‘money mule’ scams and other things criminals are using to move the money.”

On halting distribution of commercial child pornography, Irvine said that she concurs with Nikki — attacking the finances and resources that enable the child porn distribution networks is crucial to the fight against them.

“Most commercial child pornography is distributed by organized crime based in Eastern Europe and in former Soviet Republics,” Irvine said. “That’s a known fact. That’s why ASACP works with the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography. You have to take the money out of it and remove the profitability.”

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