If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

“But… if we don’t do it, somebody else will” – ever heard that? It’s the worst excuse ever, but it can be used to justify anything – pushing drugs at the schoolyard, selling “dual use” surveillance tech to dictators and now, apparently, hosting child pornography. If we don’t do it, somebody else will. And it’s like 20% of our revenue … As famously sung by the Manic Street Preachers: “If you tolerate this your children will be next” (citing Aneurin Bevan, founder of the British National Health Service). Except in this case, that bridge has already been crossed: sacrificing children for 20% of revenue.

The case in point is Dutch internet hosting provider NForce which hosts 93% of child abuse material in the Netherlands, according to sources to NRC. Operations director Dave Bakvis commented that it is difficult to monitor everything, most content is legal, there is sometimes over-blocking… and if we don’t do it, somebody else will. If this sounds like you’ve heard it all before, it’s because you have. This is a throwback to the debates around ISP liability last decade.

Illegal content has always been an unwelcome topic for digital infrastructure companies but child abuse material has been the exception, so controversial even some of the most hard-headed internet freedom fighters have accepted action is necessary (you could say other things than the consciences of broadband carriers board members should decide such things, but whaddayknow). So ISPs block access to such material based on lists provided from the police or NGOs. Keep in mind, this is about providing access, hosting is a different story: actually renting the server space, sending invoices to those who provide the abuse material. Difficult to pretend you know nothing if it shows up on your bank statement.

Internet companies love to compare themselves with things like road-keepers and post offices, to suggest they have nothing to do with the content or traffic (so does mr Bakvis). Those are horrible comparisons! While the road-keeper may have no idea who uses the road, there is no need for the police to get their support in order to uphold the law on the road. They just drive their police cars and set up a checkpoint and do whatever police do. Also, last time I looked cars have license plates which identify the owner. The post service has strict rules on what can be sent in the mail and a duty to act on suspicion. If the mail crosses a border, custom rules apply. If internet companies would act as road-keepers or the post, these problems would be solved.

Dear mr Bakvis. You can do better than this.