Is cybertip using a shotgun to kill a fly?

Michael Geist, one of Canada’s leading commentators when it comes to intellectual property and the Internet, opened up a bit of a hornet’s nest with his recent post supporting the decision by major ISP’s to back the cybertip blacklist on child exploitation and pornography. Project Cleanfeed Canada is based on a similar initiative in the UK that was led by British Telecom, and is expected to be rolled out over the next few months.

Michael said that the project was likely to “generate several responses, notably concerns about censorship and fears that this could extend to other forms of content,” but said that in his opinion “while some skepticism is understandable… will implement an appeal process for content providers who believe that their content is wrongly blocked.” In the end, he said, “the arrival of Project Cleanfeed in Canada looks like a good news story that merits close monitoring.”

Several critics immediately took issue with Michael’s support, however, including Engtech — who said that “the idea of having a national blacklist sends shivers down my spine. I would always prefer that illegal websites be shutdown rather than putting into power national filters that have the potential to be abused. I’m a pessimist, I believe that any form of censorship will eventually be abused despite its good intentions.” Engtech points to a good overview of the issues here.


Michael also got a long critical comment on his post from Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, who until recently worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Michael, I think that you’re being entirely too sanguine about a secret blacklist of content. Having had my own material censored by such blacklists at the national and local level, I’m a lot less trusting of these systems. The idea is fundamentally broken.

First of all, it seems to me that keeping a secret list of “evil” content is inherently subject to abuse. This is certainly something we’ve seen in every single other instance of secret blacklisting.

Cory and other critics say their concerns are that a) those who search out child porn would not be deterred by the blacklist, b) that many legitimate sites might be inadvertently caught in such a net, and c) that keeping the entire process secret is offensive and prone to abuse. Michael’s response (and I’m paraphrasing here) is that while some people might be able to get around the blacklist, preventing access to child porn is important enough that the effort is still worth it.

I have to admit that, despite being the father of three daughters and as concerned as anyone about access to child porn, like Engtech and Cory I see the weaknesses of the cybertip project — including the secrecy and the potential for abuse — as outweighing the potential benefits of preventing inadvertent exposure to questionable websites. In that sense, it seems to be (as one commenter put it) “like using ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) to kill a fly.”

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