A European Parliament decision on Monday to remove child pornography images at the source rather than promote web blocking has been hailed as a success by Internet rights activists.
Members of the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee ruled that complete removal "at source" must be the main aim in tackling child pornography online and that blocking access to websites is acceptable only in exceptional circumstances, when the host server in a non-EU country refuses to cooperate or when procedures take too long.
The original Commission proposal would have made blocking of child porn websites mandatory for all EU member states, prompting concern among Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who tend to support Internet freedom.
"The new generation of MEPs has shown it understands the Internet and has courageously rejected populist but ineffective and cosmetic measures in favour of measures aimed at real child protection," said Joe McNamee, of the European digital rights movement EDRi. "This is a huge and implausible success for an army of activists campaigning to protect the democratic, societal and economic value of the Internet," he added
Committee members approved the new text with a unanimous vote of 40-0. This reflects the opinion that simply blocking a website does not guarantee removal of abusive or offensive images, some material may still be present in cyberspace. Nor is blocking always effective, for example a Dutch website campaigning against child abuse was twice blocked by mistake. Furthermore, MEPs believe that under certain circumstances blocking Internet access could amount to a breach of fundamental rights.
Where blocking will be permitted under unusual circumstances, national measures preventing access "must be set by transparent procedures and provide adequate safeguards, in particular to ensure that the restriction is limited to what is necessary and proportionate, and that users are informed of the reason for the restriction." Content providers must also be informed of their right to appeal under a judicial redress procedure.
However, this is going too far for some child protection campaigners. "MEPs seem more concerned with the rights of child pornographers than they do with the rights of children who have been sexually abused," said John Carr from the Children's Charities Coalition on Internet Safety.
Where websites are hosted outside the EU, the European Commission has suggested mechanisms such as allowing law enforcement agencies to order blocking, or supporting ISPs in developing codes of conduct and guidelines for blocking access to such websites on a voluntary basis.
The new text also envisions tougher penalties for those who sexually abuse or exploit children. The proposal sets minimum penalties for 22 criminal offences, including so-called online "grooming," but also allows member states to impose harsher measures and sentencing.
Negotiations between Parliament and Council representatives will continue in the coming months, with a view to reaching a compromise preferably in the first half of this year.