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Ridding the Internet of Child Porn: Filtering Isn't the Answer

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Today's op-ed in Australian IT by Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of an organization called Child Wise is naive at best, dangerous at worst. McMenamin, whose organization seeks to prevent child sexual abuse, claims that Australia's internet filtering scheme is the solution to preventing child pornography on the Internet. She argues that ISP-level filtering is one part of a variety of efforts to curb child sexual abuse.

While I appreciate McMenamin's line of work and am certainly all for the eradication of sexual images of children on the Internet, filtering isn't the answer. Not only is it ineffective (filters can be circumvented), by simply filtering images rather than removing them, Australia will be simply putting a band-aid on the problem: the sites will still be available elsewhere. Wikileaks recently posted the filtering lists of Denmark and Finland, effectively publicizing a slew of child pornography sites. Ironically, McMenamin argues that:

Critics of this new scheme have argued that ISP filtering of child sexual abuse images simply will not work. However these filters are actually working very effectively in Scandinavian countries and in the UK as well as in recent trials in New Zealand.

While the filters may be working effectively within those countries, the publication of those lists and subsequent testing of the sites by curious readers has shown that they are, in fact, still live online (nevermind the fact that reports say that a number of the blocked sites are in fact plain old adult pornography).

Filtering may seem foolproof, but it brings a multitude of issues: IP addresses often direct to more than one site or service, effectively barring users from accessing other sites which share the blocked site's IP address; network operators would be unlikely to filter every instance of child pornography on the internet; and if a filter identifies sites by keyword, it is likely that sites not pornographic in nature could be blocked.

There is no simple answer to ridding the Internet of child pornography. But rather than simply block access to sites, efforts should be focused on prosecuting those who access child pornography, and working to take down sites which contain it.