Finnish Internet censorship | EFFI.org

Finnish Internet censorship

Kirjoittaja: Kai Puolamäki, Helmikuu 18, 2008 - 07:27.

Recent developments in the Finnish Internet censorship system. The Finnish police censors much more than was originally intended.

The Finnish police maintains a secret block list of web sites allegedly containing child pornography, pursuant to a law passed late 2006. The purpose of the law is to prevent the access to the foreign sites that contain child pornography.

Most of the censored sites are located in the United States or EU countries. Many of the censored sites have turned out to be apparently legal pornographic sites. Some of the censored sites are not pornographic sites at all.

The censorship list has been recently augmented with a Finnish site called lapsiporno.info that is maintained by an Internet activist Matti Nikki. The site does not contain any pornography, let alone child pornography, but articles that criticise censorship and a list of blocked domains. Nikki has been one of the most vocal critics of the government's net censorship project.

After a public outcry on the censorship practices the police decided to suspect Nikki of aiding the distribution of material violating sexual chastity. They called him for questioning on Wednesday 20 February 2008.

This article gives a summary of Internet censorship in Finland and an overview of recent developments in English.

Contents

What is censored

The list of censored web sites is supposedly secret. However, due to the implementation of the censorship mechanism, described more in detail later, it has been possible to find and study the censored sites.

The censorship supposedly applies only to foreign web sites that are used to distribute child pornographic images and the block list indeed reportedly contains such sites.

However, many of the censored sites are apparently legal pornographic sites. Most of the censored sites are located in the United States or in the EU countries which have strict legislation against child pornography. Many of the censored US sites contain the 18 U.S.C. 2257 notice.

Many of the blocked sites are link farms, without actual independent image content. The block list reportedly contains disproportionately many gay sites.

www.thaimisc.com

The root page of a censored www.thaimisc.com,
as seen on 17 February 2008.

The censorship however extends not only to the adult sites. For example, the following sites are censored:

The Finnish police also censors the site www.thaimisc.com, root page of which is shown in the figure on the right. The root page appears (even though I don't understand the Thai text) to be set up in honour of the late HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana of Thailand. This is not a proud moment to be a Finn. :(

The case of Matti Nikki

Matti Nikki (Muzzy) is an Internet activist who is remembered by many of his analysis of the Sony BMG DRM spyware. Nikki maintains an Internet site lapsiporno.info (translates as "childpornography".info). The site contains a list of the censored sites and critical articles of Internet censorship. The site does not contain any pornography at all.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) added Nikki's site to the block list on or about 12 February 2008. The NBI refused to comment the reasons for the blocking, but they said that generally speaking a site may be blocked if it contains even one link to alleged child pornographic site.

Previously the list of censored sites on Nikki's site had just the names of the sites, not links. To enter a censored site one had to copy the site name to the address bar of the browser. The site was censored after Nikki had made the names of the sites clickable links (after which there was no need to manually copy the site names to the address bar of the browser). According to the police FAQ (in Finnish) the block list includes sites with "a working link to a site containing child pornography". There is however no apparent legal basis for the distinction between not censoring a site with a written site name of an alleged child pornographic site, and censoring a site with the corresponding clickable link.

Nikki had published the block list because it is the only way to publicly evaluate the censorship practices. According to Nikki, most of the censored sites are in fact legal pornographic sites. A member of the parliament that checked Nikki's list of censored sites confirmed that the block list contains many sites that are apparently legal adult sites, with no child pornographic content.

The censorship of Nikki's sites caused a public outcry. A legal Finnish web site had been censored. If Nikki's site really had some illegal content, the correct thing to do would have been to obtain a take down order from the court, as the web server is located in the Finland and information of the owner of the site is given clearly at the root page of the site. There was indeed no reason to censor the site.

After the public outcry the case started to look really bad for the NBI. On or about 15 February 2008 the police announced that they would like to question him of suspected aiding of the distribution of material violating sexual chastity (according to the criminal code the material violating sexual chastity is images presenting children, violence or animals in sexual context; the investigation had apparently been delegated from NBI to the Helsinki police). Without knowing any details, a good guess is that the police suspects that having a clickable link to a web site allegedly containing child pornographic images is equivalent to aiding the distribution of such images. The blocked sites listed at Nikki's site should of course be unaccessible for the people that have a Internet connection that implements the block list (even if they clicked the links, assuming that the blocking would be effective).

On same grounds the police could probably also call search engines such as Google, Microsoft Search and Yahoo for questioning.

How the censorship works

An unnamed official (or officials, nobody knows for sure) at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) classifies a web site as a "child pornography site" and adds it to the secret block list. The police has announced that the site does not need to have any images to be added to the block list. It is enough if the site contains only one link to a site allegedly containing child pornographic images. The NBI has declared that the second degree linking, for example, the news sites linking to Nikki's site, will not be censored.

According to the NBI, the block list contains about 1700 sites.

Apparently the police does not try to contact the site Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the owner of the censored site, even if the site owner would be known (although due to the secretive administrative practices of the block list it is difficult to say how exactly the list is administered and who, if any, is contacted). This is strange, because most Internet service providers would certainly react to valid announcements of child pornography sent to their abuse desk address.

The censorship is applied equally to all clients of the ISP. There is no way to opt-out (although circumventing the censorship is technically easy).

It is not clear how the sites are supposed to be removed from the block list. As far as we can tell the sites are never removed, unless someone complains to the email address given by the police and the police judges that the site is no longer a "child pornographic site". There is apparently no way to appeal this judgement.

Appealing the judgement may be difficult in the first place because the list is secret (you may not know that you have been censored) and the police refuses to reveal the listing criteria for individual sites on the grounds of the secrecy of the list (you may not know why you have been censored). It is also unclear who would pay damages or how to demand punishment for a loss of income or defamation due to an incorrect block list entry.

The police sends the block list to selected ISPs at regular intervals. Most of the ISPs that implement the block list then block the access to these sites using a domain name system (DNS) based blocking mechanism; some ISPs reportedly use intercepting proxy server to do the filtering. The ISPs are required by law to keep the block list secret.

The censorship is very coarse. Whole web servers are blocked. For example, a web server of a large Internet Service Provider can serve thousands of sites belonging to different customers. For example, lets assume someone posts a message containing a link to an alleged child pornographic site to a message board maintained by one of these customers. The message appears on the site for a day, after which the maintainer of the message board removes the message as inappropriate. If the NBI happens to check the site during the brief period when the offending message is visible they may censor the whole site for undetermined time. For the same reason sites with lots of user generated content are at risk: it may be enough that one user posts some inappropriate content to get the whole site censored. The potential for collateral censorship is huge.

POLICE. ENTRY DENIED.

Announcement by the police that a web site
you tried to access has been censored.

When the client's web browsers sends a request for a domain name server (DNS) of an Internet (IP) address of a censored site the DNS does not return the actual IP address of the censored server but an IP address of the ISP's server that contains an announcement that the site has been blocked.

Instead of the censored site, the client is shown an announcement of the following kind (translated from Finnish; see the figure on the right for the original announcement, as shown at the Nikki's site):

POLICE.
ENTRY DENIED.

Your browser has tried to access a site for which the access has been prevented due to the act on preventive measures on distribution of child pornography. The police maintains and updates a list of these child pornography sites. It is punishable to possess or distribute images on these sites. For the police these images are evidence of sexual crimes against children.

Any messages on the issue can be sent the National Bureau of Investigation, email address krp-nettiesto@krp.poliisi.fi

From this link you can read the criminal code related to the child pornography.

In other words, the police claims that a blocked site contains child pornographic images, even though this is not necessarily true - even according to the police a single web link is sufficient to get a whole site blocked, no images are required.

The announcement page contains just the email address (which reportedly even did not work originally). There is no other contact information or information of who is in charge of the block list.

How the censorship can be circumvented

The censorship is easy to circumvent with minimal technical skills. It is sufficient to use some other domain name server than that of your Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as OpenDNS, or a third party web proxy server.

The implementation of the censorship mechanism makes it possible to find out what is on the supposedly secret block list. One can for example implement a web crawler that sends a domain name request of the crawled sites to the ISP's name server. If the name server returns the address of the ISP's announcement server then the domain name is censored. Getting a partial snapshot of the block list this way is possible for all customers of the ISPs that implement the censorship.

Most of the supposedly secret block list has in fact been published in several venues.

Is the censorship legal

The Constitution of Finland, section 12, guarantees the freedom of expression. Censorship is absolutely forbidden by the constitution, except that there may be restrictions relating to pictorial programmes that are necessary for the protection of children.

The censorship is implemented pursuant to the act on preventive measures on distribution of child pornography, passed late 2006 (law in Finnish).

The law authorizes the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to maintain a secret block list of foreign web sites that distribute child pornographic images. The law is supposed to be a final resort to block the access to sites that can't be taken down by conventional judicial means, such as by a take down order issued by the court of law.

According to the statement by the Faculty of Law of the University of Turku during the drafting of the law, submitted on request to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the act on preventive measures on distribution of child pornography violates the constitution.

There was however a strong political pressure to appear to be doing something to the child pornography in the Internet. The law was rushed through the parliament with no opposition as an ordinary law, disregarding the possible unconstitutionality. (It is possible to make laws that contradict the constitution, but such laws should be passed as constitutional laws with 5/6 majority at the parliament, or 2/3 majority at two consecutive parliaments.)

The ministry implied during the drafting of the law that if the Finnish Internet Service Providers did not submit to the "voluntary" censorship the government would make the censorship mandatory. This is why the "voluntary" in '"voluntary" censorship' is often written within quotation marks.

The law (even though the law itself may be unconstitutional) only authorizes blocking foreign sites that are used to distribute child pornographic images.

The NBI however has also blocked Nikki's site, a domestic site which contains no child pornography but critique of net censorship. It appears that much more than just sites containing child pornographic images are censored.

Because the law is infringing a civil right protected by the constitution it should be interpreted as restrictively as possible. The legality of the current implementation of the censorship is doubtful: the coarse DNS based blocking mechanism censors whole web servers, some with thousands of sites, resulting to huge collateral censorship. The NBI also appears to have a very expansive interpretation of the applicability of the law.

According to the law, the block list is secret. NBI uses this secrecy as a basis to refuse to disclose the blocking criteria even of the sites publicly known to be on the block list (such as Matti Nikki's site). It appears that the NBI uses the secrecy of the list as an excuse to keep also the administration of the list as closed and secretive as possible.

Is the censorship legal? The act on preventive measures on distribution of child pornography itself may be unconstitutional, the coarse technical implementation of the censorship may inherently cause illegal collateral censorship and the NBI appears to have stepped well outside the bounds set by the law in maintaining the block list.

Is the censorship efficient in fighting child pornography

According to the ministry the censorship is supposed to prevent ending up to a child pornographic site by accident - even though it is extremely unlikely to end up to a child pornographic site by accident in the first place and even though everyone have always been able to obtain a net filtering program or service on voluntary basis. The distribution of child pornographic images is illegal in most countries and therefore these images are not typically distributed from the open web sites for which this type of censorship could even in principle be efficient.

Even the preliminary work on the law recognized the fact that the censorship will not do much good for the real problem, that is, the sexual abuse of children. It was also recognized early that the censorship could be easily bypassed.

It seems that it is the appearances that count here. It is important that someone appears to be doing something to counter the child pornography in the Internet; even though it can be argued that the censorship just makes things worse in sweeping the real problem under the carpet (not to speak of introduction of unconstitutional censorship mechanism).

An opponent of the censorship is easily labelled a supporter of child pornography.

The censorship hurts law-abiding citizens who try to visit wrongly censored sites, and owners of the wrongly blocked sites who are labeled as distributors of child pornographic images by the police.

The censorship hurts the victims by sweeping the real problem of child abuse under the carpet, out of sight, out of mind. Many of the censored sites in countries with a strict legislation against child pornography stay up and are not taken down. This implies that either the sites do not really contain child pornographic images or the NBI has not informed the local authorities or Internet Service Providers of the infringing sites; or that the local US and EU authorities are not doing anything - all explanations are equally worrying.

The resources wasted on the futile censorship project would have been better spent on giving more emphasis to the co-operation of the police authorities in different countries so that the offending sites could be really shut down and the people responsible brought into justice. This was in fact suggested by many, including Effi, during the drafting of the law.

Expansion of censorship

It didn't take long for people to suggest expanding the censorship further.

During the past month or so it has been suggested that the Internet poker sites should be censored with the same system. Net poker apparently is a problem for some and the solution would be to censor all gambling sites for good. A real reason behind this may also be the protection of the Finnish national gambling monopoly which has not managed to set up a net poker site of their own, at least yet.

There have been EU wide plans to prevent access to the sites that allegedly "promote copyright infringement", such as the Pirate Bay; this has also been suggested by our domestic recording and movie industry lobbyists.

Some have suggested preventing access to racist sites and so on.

Supposedly some guy at the National Bureau of Investigation would decide which sites contain copyright infringing or racist content or whatever else is on the list and add them to the secret block list.

We are on a slippery slope here. The civil rights, such as the freedom of expression or right to privacy, are deteriorating rapidly in Finland, a fact noted in the 2007 International Privacy Ranking of the Privacy International.

On reason for the sad state of affairs is the lack of knowledge of the Internet. The first reaction of many to the new world order brought by the Internet is to have more restrictions. It may also be that the relatively long period of stability and democracy has made many forget why the constitutional rights, such as the freedom of expression or right to privacy, are important. These rights are too easily traded for apparent sense of security or for the economic interests of large corporations.

What Effi will do

The act on preventive measures on distribution of child pornography has little legal remedies.

Many constitutional safeguards have already been passed.

Effi will, among others, appeal of the law and the current censorship practices to the Parliamentary Ombudsman or the Chancellor of Justice who supervise the lawfulness of the actions of Government Ministers and public officials, and monitor the implementation of basic rights and liberties and human rights.

Hopefully there will be real discussion of the meaning of the constitutional rights.

However, there is little anyone can do in the long term if the basic rights are seen by the politicians and the public secondary to the apparent sense of security.

Material in English


Kai Puolamäki
18 February 2008

This document is Public Domain.