European legislators consider net filter for Europe

'Single cyberspace' plan described as madness by civil liberties groups

European Union plans to "create a single secure cyberspace" have come under fire from civil liberties groups, with many saying that they only serve to highlight how far the bloc still has to go in understanding the modern online world.

In February, at a secret meeting of the Council of the European Union's Law Enforcement Work Party (LEWP), politicians discussed plans to create a "virtual Schengen border" (the Schengen area is the common passport area within the E.U.) with ISPs required to block "illicit content" from outside the area. The Council of the European Union is the E.U.'s central legislative and decision-making body.

There has been no clarification as to what this "illicit content" might be, merely that there would be an E.U. blacklist. The plan has been compared to China's heavy-handed methods in controlling access to the Web.

"This proposal will be used as a justification of every repressive measure by every undemocratic regime in every part of the world. Even the discussion of the project legitimizes this profoundly illegitimate suggestion," said Joe McNamee of European digital rights group EDRi on Monday. "Most absurd of all, despite all of the costs in terms of democracy, freedom of speech and even the economy, there is no analysis of any benefit or expected benefit that, even mistakenly, the architects of this madness expect to outweigh the cost."

Other critics focused on the inability to implement such a plan. "They only have to look at how porous the Great Firewall of China is - something that has been created and honed by experts with huge resources. Blacklists don't work," said technology writer Glyn Moody in his blog. "But even if they did work, it's outrageous that the European Union can be contemplating their use without even the slightest twinge of conscience."

He points out that Internet users can easily use proxies to circumvent filtering and that "illicit" websites can move IP addresses far too quickly for a blacklist to keep up with, describing the politicians behind the plan as "clueless twits."

There is also concern that innocent sites are routinely included on blacklists. In Australia, where a similar filtering plan has been proposed, the IT minister Stephen Conroy publically admitted that there was justified cause for concern over mission-creep to include legal content.

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Jennifer Baker

IDG News Service
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