EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom detailed plans on Monday to harmonize efforts to tackle child pornography across the bloc.
Under the proposals, it would become illegal across the EU not only to own or distribute offensive pornographic material but also to search for and look at relevant websites. Befriending children via the Internet with a view to sexually abusing them ("grooming") and showing offensive videos of children on the Web will also become offenses.
Malmstrom's key proposal, however, is to force all member states to block access to offensive Web sites.
"Systems will be developed to block access to Web sites containing child pornography, as they are very difficult to take down at source, especially if the site is outside Europe," she told reporters in Brussels.
The Commission insists that blocking content already works in practice, stopping "thousands of requests to view child pornography Web sites everyday," according to Malmstrom.
But the German government, as well as pressure groups and industry, do not believe that blocking content is effective, but say that it can, in fact, be counter-productive.
"Blocking content is like establishing an early warning system for those criminals that put offensive content on the Web," Alvar Freude, founder of the Working Group for Access Blocking and Censorship told Deutsche Welle.
"These criminals can easily find out if they are blacklisted and that would give them a heads-up for any future visits from the police," he added.
Freude's stance reflects that of many Germans who believe that paedophiles will simply find other ways to access content. Industry representatives agree that bans on Web sites would be easy to circumvent.
"In our experience, Web sites showing child pornography can change their virtual locations by the minute," Oliver Sueme, vice president of the Association of the German Internet Industry (ECO), told Deutsche Welle. The Association represents Internet service providers and other, related companies. It also operates one of the German hotlines for complaints against child pornography sites.
"If we blocked something on a server, you will find that content on a different server within a few hours. It [blocking] is not at all effective in fighting child pornography, " he added.
Law shelved in Germany
Both Freude and Sueme have a lot of support among ordinary Germans.
Germany has just put on hold a law that was introduced by the previous government in the summer of 2009. The law came into effect in February of this year, but in an unusual legal procedure, has effectively been shelved.
The move follows a public pressure campaign, spearheaded by Franziska Heine. In April 2009 she submitted a petition to the German parliament with 134,000 signatures.
Erasing rather than blocking
The German government maintains it will not introduce measures to block content, but would instead focus on erasing offensive content, as stipulated in the governing coalition's manifesto.
"We are definitely taking this one step further by focusing on erasing content instead of blocking it," a government spokesman said on Monday.
The government is currently working on its own measures to tackle paedophile content, which will include efforts to erase offensive content that is not exchanged on the World Wide Web, but in chatrooms and peer-to-peer networks, as is often the case among paedophiles.
Sueme and Freude point out that what is really needed is better cross-border cooperation, even beyond the borders of the EU. Investigations by national police forces with the aid of Europol and Interpol often take far too long.
"It is absolutely crucial for the Commission to tackle the issue of [international] cooperation first," Sueme told Deutsche Welle.
The Commission's proposals will now have to be discussed in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Both Sueme and Freude will continue to push the German agenda in Brussels.
"We hope there will be a thorough debate in the European parliament, before anything is signed into law," Sueme said.
Author: Nicole Goebel
Editor: Susan Houlton