A recent incident in which a Finnish free speech activist was censored by his government highlights the dangers of secret blacklists of supposedly illegal Web sites.
The spat started when programmer Matti Nikki began to research which Web sites were secretly blocked by Finnish Internet providers based on a list compiled by the government. Although the secret blacklist was supposed to be reserved for overseas child pornography, Nikki discovered that, at least in his view, the majority of Web sites blocked were perfectly legal.
And what happened when Nikki published his findings on its Lapsiporno.info site? You guessed it: Embarrassed government officials put his expose on their blacklist as well.
Sites on the heretofore secret blacklist, as compiled by Nikki, include ones devoted to same-sex erotica and computer-generated erotica (which, at least in the U.S., cannot be classified as illegal child pornography). And the blacklist he posted has been aggressively mirrored, including on docs.google.com, posing a serious challenge to any police agency intent on censoring it.
Nikki now says that he may be under investigation by the police for publishing what was supposed to be the secret blacklist. He wrote on Friday:
The police has finally asked me to arrange time for an interrogation. The request came from the violence crime unit, which also deals with sex crimes. I haven't yet gotten confirmation, but apparently they'll want to investigate me about aiding the distribution of child porn. Since there's now officially a police investigation, I won't be commenting much more about it until I've discussed the situation with a lawyer.
Electronic Frontier Finland (Effi) demands the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) of Finland to explain why it has censored a net site that criticises Internet censorship... "If the site really had some illegal content, wouldn't the correct solution be to take the site down and take the site owner to the court? The site is located on a Finnish server and the name of the site owner appears visibly on the root page of the site."
A report on the YLE.fi news site says that Finland's National Bureau of Investigation began compiling its secret list last fall, and now has approximately 1,700 sites on it.
The United States had its own close encounter with a secret blacklist of ostensible porn sites in the form of a Pennsylvania statute that coerced Internet providers into blocking access to certain Web sites the government didn't like. In 2004, a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional, noting that "there is an abundance of evidence that implementation of the Act has resulted in massive suppression of speech protected by the First Amendment."
Even private blacklists, which you might expect to be more rigorous than governmental efforts, have similar problems. I co-authored an article over a decade ago that described how software filters such SurfWatch, CyberPatrol, NetNanny, and CyberSitter quietly blocked women's organizations, gun rights groups, environmental groups, gay resources, and so on.
After a decade or more of this, it's clear that the underlying problem is straightforward: Secret blacklists, especially those created by unaccountable bureaucrats, are prone to unwarranted expansion and abuse. Unfortunately, Finland has yet to figure this out.