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Erase not block

December 2, 2011

Germany's lower house of parliament has lifted its ban of websites containing pornographic images and videos of children, after the measure caused an outcry among web users. Berlin is now looking to delete the websites.

Pornography on the internet
The Bundestag says erasing, not blocking is the wayImage: AP Graphics

Truth is not so much taught as caught: The Bundestag has turned its child-pornography proposal from 2009, one passed with a resounding majority, on its head. Now, with its decision to end the law blocking access to child pornography on the internet, a long and controversial debate has also been ended. The criticism of the law passed by a coalition of Germany's two main parties, Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats and the now opposition Social Democrats, was massive from the start. The decision to have such sites blocked was "ineffective, counterproductive and represented the beginning of internet censorship," said critics such as the Chaos Computer Club.

Ineffective blocking

The proposal had aimed to have a list of dubious websites - to be compiled by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office - banned by their internet providers. For users looking to gain access to the sites, a red "stop" sign was to appear on the screen instead of the normal content.

It became clear relatively quickly that the block was relatively simple to circumvent. The content that was banned appeared on other sites.

Internet "stop sign" in German
The German parliament's idea was to have a screen warn users to 'stop'Image: picture alliance / dpa

"Internet blockings are pointless," said programmer and Pirate Party member Stephan Urbach in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "I need around five minutes to reconfigure my browser if I want to view that material."

The stop sign was a mere fig leaf, Urbach added, without having any real effect on the distribution of child pornography through the internet.

'Erasing works'

Germany's current justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has even dismissed the former law as a "superficial solution." The only way to prevent such sites from being viewed is to delete them, according to Jimmy Schulz, a liberal internet expert.

"This has already shown great success and proves that this is the right way to go," Schulz said.

Erasing sites, according to Stephan Urbach, is an effective means against online child pornography. Essentially it would be enough to alert the individual providers of the abuse. Most of these, even those abroad, would react as quickly as possible.

"No provider would be able to stand being regarded as a disseminator of child pornography," said Urbach.

Oliver Süme of the internet industry alliance eco said that "by now we need only a few days to erase illegal content from the net." For sites and pages in German the operation can be completed in a few hours.

Fear of censorship

Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger
Justice Minister Leutheusser-SchnarrenbergerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The now discontinued law to block illegal sites caused uproar among internet users. An online petition signed by 130,000 people went around in a bid to have the law overturned. Critics feared the beginning of a state censorship agency, arguing that this could lead to the government having too much of a say over what could be viewed and what not.

The German government's decision has now apparently influenced the debate in Brussels, according to Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

"The German way has now established itself on the European level," she said.

The Bundestag says it will keep on eye on whether the decision to erase instead of block illegal content has indeed facilitated the fight against child pornography on the internet. The resolution put forth calls for an annual report on the success of the measures.

According to Stephan Urbach, the most effective way to curb child pornography is ultimately to fight the problem where it starts.

"Child pornography isn't an internet issue," he said. "These pictures and videos have to come from somewhere. Children are being abused."

Author: Nils Naumann / glb
Editor: Spencer Kimball