Following the Australian government’s recent foray into web filtering, last week, Slashdot reported that Germany’s Minister for Families, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced an initiative to force German ISPs to enforce a government-mandated “block list”. The list, which would be created and maintained by the BKA (the German equivalent of the FBI), would catalog websites that German ISPs are not allowed to serve to users. According to an article on Spiegel Online (crudely translated into English here), the government has already made “binding agreements” with all of the major German ISPs, though it remains unclear what, exactly, this means in legal terms.
As might be expected, the government is justifying this initiative under the familiar rubric of fighting child pornography. When asked if the database might be used to censor other types of content, von der Leyen reportedly replied, “We must not water down the problem,” before adding, less reassuringly, “I can’t know what wishes and plans future governments will develop.” While von der Leyen might plead ignorance, previous instances of German web filtering hint at the direction that this program may soon head in. In 2002, the district government of Dusseldorf ordered 80 ISPs to block four foreign websites outright, for hosting content pertaining to Neo-Nazism. Two of these sites were later dropped from the blocking order, including rotten.com, a shock website that, as European Digital Rights notes, is “distasteful, but certainly not illegal”.
While none of us would condone the viewing of either child pornography or Neo-Nazi content, the idea of a government-mandated “block list” is deeply troubling. Such a list creates a mechanism whereby a government can actively block, filter and censor unwanted content and free speech on the web and in a worst-case scenario, might be used to create a German equivalent to the so-called “Great Firewall of China”. Worse yet, there are signs that this approach to illegal content is spreading, with European Digital Rights reporting that Belgium may soon follow suit. And let’s not pretend that such ideas haven’t been floated closer to home in the not-too-distant past, as well. One has to wonder if there might not be a better approach to fighting reprehensible content on the Web–ideally one that first evaluates the legality of a site in question before taking action.
Not being an expert on the topic of German government, I’m not sure how far along this initiative is. Slashdot‘s tipster claims that “[von der Leyen] has agreed the principle of the legislation with the interior minister and the technology minister, which in German coalition government terms means it’s pretty much a done deal.” Regardless, if you live in either Germany or the EU, I urge you to contact your Parliamentary representatives and register your disapproval with regard to these sorts of techniques. While we can all agree that illegal content must be dealt with, we should find a way to address it without placing the governments of liberal democracies on a collision course with free speech.