Few issues unite Internet users as much as their collective distaste for censorship. It was therefore unsurprising that many in the Internet community recoiled at last month's announcement that a group of Canada's largest Internet service providers, including Bell, MTS Allstream, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, and Videotron, had entered into an agreement with Cybertip.ca, an organization maintained by Child Find Manitoba, to voluntarily block access to child pornography websites.
The initiative, dubbed Project Cleanfeed Canada, is modeled after British Telecom's Project Cleanfeed, which has blocked access to child pornography in the United Kingdom for the past two years. Under the plan, Cybertip.ca will identify a list of websites that contain child pornography and the ISPs will use filtering technology to block access to those sites. The block list will only contain foreign-based websites with all Canadian-based sites referred to law enforcement to pursue legal action.
Child pornography is unique in that the Criminal Code renders it illegal to create, distribute, and access such content. Other forms of controversial content such as hate speech or defamation may pose legal liability for the speaker, but are not unlawful to access. Canadian ISPs, who will not administer the block list nor maintain a list of subscribers who attempt to access blocked content, believe that they are on safe legal ground by stopping attempts to access child pornography.
While many have understandably applauded the effort to reduce access to child pornography, critics have voiced several concerns. These include skepticism about the transparency and accuracy of the block list, concerns about the accountability of Cybertip.ca, doubts about the effectiveness of the initiative, and fears that the blocking might eventually extend to other content.
Lianna McDonald, the initiative's Executive Director, sought to address many of those concerns in an interview last week. She noted that Cybertip.ca has instituted several measures to reduce the likelihood that the block list will extend beyond clear cases of child pornography.
First, the block list will be limited to sites with images of pre-pubescent pornography (ie. images of children aged 12 and under). While that approach will leave some child pornography unblocked, it will also reduce the possibility of mistakenly tagging lawful content.
Second, experts will review the inclusion of all sites in consultation with law enforcement. Moreover, McDonald advised that the organization would be amenable to incorporating further judicial oversight into the process.
Third, an appeals process will be established to enable sites to challenge their presence on the block list. That process will include reviews from both Cybertip.ca and an independent examination from the National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre.
Cybertip.ca has also undertaken to address concerns regarding its own accountability. The organization features an independent board of directors and it answers to public and private funders who are anxious to limit the prospect of legal liability that could stem from overblocking (the federal government provides approximately 60 percent of its funding).
Furthermore, although the contents of the block list will understandably remain hidden out of fear that public distribution would provide a directory of child pornography, Cybertip.ca plans to release regular reports that will disclose the size of the list and the ISPs participating in Project Cleanfeed Canada.
Criticism regarding the effectiveness of the initiative may stem from a misunderstanding of its goals. While many experienced child pornographers may avoid using websites to disseminate their content, numerous anti-child pornography organizations confirm that there remain hundreds of child pornography sites that may be inadvertently accessed thousands of times each day by unsuspecting Internet users. Indeed, earlier this year British Telecom reported that it was blocking 35,000 child pornography hits per day.
The prospect that this initiative might be extended to other content is the most troubling concern. This summer Australia Senator Helen Coonan discussed the prospect of implementing an Australia Cleanfeed Project, yet lamented that the project was narrowly tailored toward child pornography. Several European countries have also been watching the UK Project Cleanfeed with an eye to establishing mandatory blocking requirements. Canadian law would currently prohibit extending the block list to other forms of content, however, ISPs and the Internet community must be vigilant to ensure that fears of a "slippery slope" do not come to fruition.
For the moment, Project Cleanfeed Canada deserves cautious support precisely because it is narrowly tailored to non-Canadian, clear cases of child pornography and has been voluntarily implemented with a handful of checks and balances. There are unquestionably some risks that require careful monitoring, but the project deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.