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Belgian government trying to censor the Internet

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Apr 22, 2009 in Internet
Freedom of speech is an important realisation of modern secular governments. Secularism is probably a necessary condition for freedom of speech, but not a sufficient one, as Belgium now demonstrates by preventing its citizens to visit certain websites.
De Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of forbidden books on which non-Latin translations of the Bible have long figured, was officially abolished by the Vatican in 1966. Many younger Christians may find this hard to believe, but the Vatican for centuries did indeed consider the Bible a dangerous book that should not be read by its own followers, except for those belonging to the priesthood. To put this a little in perspective, people who were born in that year, are now merely 43 years old. And now, this accomplishment is under threat again.
Luc Van Braekel writes on, a leading Dutch-language Belgian blog, that the danger he warned us for Internet censorship two and a half years ago on June 26, 2006 has now become reality. Belgium, a country that claims to pride itself on its liberal attitudes and freedoms, has joined the ranks of other less-than-democratic regimes such as China by creating a Big Belgian Firewall as he calls it, and this firewall has now been activated.
This means that a large part of the Belgian population is, at this time, unable to visit websites that you and I can visit without giving it a second thought.
Which sites are being blocked?
This may not tell the non-Dutch speaker anything, but "stop kinderporno" means "stop child porn". These websites are trying to fight against child porn. So, why are they being blocked? Surely not to protect child porn? No, they are being blocked because they are publishing information that allows people to find out the identity of convicted pedophiles or child porn producers. As such, this goal is perfectly legitimate: even convicted criminals are entitled to privacy under the law.
De Standaard, a leading Dutch-language Belgian newspaper, quotes Luc Van Braekel as saying that this is unacceptable censorship.
Patrick Van Eecke, professor of information law at the University of Antwerp, disagrees somewhat. He says that these sites are identifying pedophiles and that this creates a real risk that some citizens might decide to take the law into their own hands, and that even pedophiles are entitles to protection under the law.
However, he adds that it is ironic that a law which was mainly created to ban child porn is now being used to protect those who made it in the first place.
Luc Van Braekel agrees with this in principle and he even agrees that censorship of this type should be possible if content published on the site is clearly against the law, and only if the site is being blocked at the source. He disagrees if blocking happens by filtering Internet-traffic and defends the web-neutrality principle.
That said, it seems that the Belgian government is not well prepared. Luc Van Braekel had to go to a computer connected to a different Internetprovider than his own in order to see the blocked site message. His own provider did not block it, either because it didn't agree or because it was slow in implementing the court order.
Luc Van Braekel thinks that this may mean that the much-touted Great Belgian Firewall (a term he coined) is not yet active but that instead Internet providers are being asked/ordered to redirect all requests for the blocked sites to the site with the "blocked" message.
He had previously already warned that this type of censorship is a slippery slope. He said, for example, that as a liberal, he thinks that adults are old enough to make their own decisions without help from the government. He adds that he does not mean that the government cannot play a role in the protection of children on the Internet.
Van Braekel also took an additional step on (January 25 2009) by informing all Internet-savvy Belgians who happen to visit how they can circumvent Belgian Internet censorship by using the OpenDNS servers. "For the time being," he said, "I can still give you this tip freely, without being prosecuted, and as long as Internet traffic to and from the DNS servers of OpenDNS is not being blocked yet.
More about Belgium, Censorship, Blocking internet
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