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Germany

Major German online companies agree to block child porn websites

German internet providers have grudgingly agreed to block websites containing child pornography. Critics say their deal with the government won't make much of a difference.

German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen holding a A4 sheet with a red stop sign

Germany's family minister warns all child porn sites will be blocked on the internet

Five of Germany's eight major internet service providers - Deutsche Telekom's T-Online, Vodafone's Arcor, Kabel Deutschland, Telefonica's O2 and Alice's Hansenet - signed the legally binding agreement with the government and the Federal Crime Office on Friday, agreeing to install software to block consumer access to child pornography sites. The five companies together cover around 75 percent of the German market.

In future, due to the software blocks installed by the internet service providers, consumers attempting to click on blacklisted websites are to be automatically redirected to a red stop sign. The Federal Crime Office has compiled the blacklist of 1,000 sites, which it updates daily.

The online companies have six months to reprogram thousands of servers and install the page blockers. The government expects that, once these are in place, up to 450,000 attempts to access child pornography sites will be blocked daily.

German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen proposed the law obliging ISPs to block child porn sites. It is modeled on similar action taken years ago in Scandinavia, Britain and Italy.

"If these countries can overcome any legal and technical issues and successfully fight child porn online, we can do the same in Germany," von der Leyen said when she first presented the new measures. "We don't want to tolerate the rape of children, even babies, being widely available in Germany," she added.

The law is also intended to make it harder for criminals to profit from distributing banned pedophile material.

Red sign with Stopp! in big letters

This is what child porn surfers will soon see pop up on their computer screen

Not all on board, yet

Notably absent in the agreement are 1&1, Freenet and other internet providers who service the remaining 25 percent of the German market. They say they do not want to take the risk of breaching the telecommunications secrecy law by blocking child pornography sites. They also argue that they only provide the technical capacity to distribute information and are not responsible for content that flows through their networks.

Limiting access to information is a sensitive subject in Germany because of its Nazi past and East German Communist rule, but von der Leyen said protecting children was the priority.

"The vulnerability and dignity of children is more important than mass communication," the family minister said.

The German cabinet is expected to announce changes to the telecommunications law by summer that would force the remaining internet providers to block child porn sites.

No reason to believe child porn consumption is going down

The notion that pedophiles are shadowy figures who consume child pornography at midnight is long since defunct. In an embarrassing admission a few weeks, a Social Democrat lawmaker, Joerg Tauss, admitted that he possessed child porn. He denied that he was a pedophile or doing anything wrong, saying he had collected the material for research. As a lawmaker, he ought to know that laws also govern the "research" of child pornography websites.

There's no reliable information on the extent of child pornography, but the German government says access to video and other images of child pornography on the internet more than doubled from 2006 to 2007. There has also been an increase in the amount of violence against small children they show.

The size of those child porn rings that are exposed is, however, some indication of the scope of the problem. On Thursday, German police announced they had smashed a global ring of around 9,000 suspected pedophiles in 92 countries. Pornographic images of children were transmitted from more than 1,000 connections in Germany to 8,000 IP addresses in countries including the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland. The footage included "images of the most serious sexual abuse, even of toddlers,” police said in a statement.

Child porn users bypass "obvious" areas

DVDE disc with the German word for child pornography handwritten on it

Child pornography is often distributed via DVDs not the internet

Critics say the new law is practically useless, because companies abroad can easily bypass the software block. According to German computer magazine CT, a 27-second online video is already circulating showing how the block can be circumvented. Only the "naive internet user" might possibly be stopped from accessing prohibited material, the magazine wrote.

"Most child pornography material is available through private forums, like exchange sites, newsgroups, chat rooms, free areas of Usenet and e-mail distribution lists," says Udo Vetter, a lawyer who often represents people charged with possession of child pornography.

In an interview with CT, Vetter said "many simply receive the videos on DVD via the mail," adding that he doubted a major child pornography industry even exists. Vetter estimated that 98 percent of such images have been around for years and that the quality of most new material that surfaces seems to have been made by private individuals in a domestic setting.

Others criticize the government deal with the ISPs as being too short-sighted.

"Blocking internet pages containing child pornography is only one step towards preventing the abuse of children and only reaches "the lower echelons" of pedophiles, says legal expert Axel Stahl, head of the association of federal judges and prosecutors in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Stahl warned against excessively high expectations, saying that foreign companies that produce child pornography will surely find ways to bypass the new technical limitations.

Scarcity can actually increase demand

"The new rules mean gaining access to child pornography will become more difficult, but it won't stop material from being published," says Otto Vollmers, who represents FSM, a German industry organization that advocates voluntary self-control of the internet. "Making access technically more difficult can actually arouse greater interest."

However, similar measures in other countries suggest that blocks so work.

"Between 15,000 and 50,000 access attempts are blocked in Norway and Sweden every day," said Friedemann Schindler of the German youth protection initiative jugendschutz.de. "This is undermining demand and is breaking the commercial cycle."

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