Child Pornography and Internet Censorship

An increasing demand to quell child pornography raises questions about criminal web content and Malaysian digital policy

Lara Powell

21 Feb 2019


Child Porn Update.jpg

On Monday, February 11 The Star released an article highlighting the issue of child pornography and Malaysian cyberlaw. The article explains that child rights activists are pressing for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to do more to prevent the circulation of child pornography.


Child pornography is, of course, a heinous crime which needs to be addressed. Internet content monitoring by ISPs and intermediaries however, is not the only possible solution to this problem and has limited effectiveness due to technical constraints.

Privacy and Surveillance


Internet monitoring translates to mass surveillance. In order to track down and block content involving child sex abuse, ISPs will be required to collect and analyse all personal and business communications.


Additionally, the flawed nature of automatic analysis would likely result in innocent individuals being flagged for uploading or viewing content which is not, in fact, pornographic.


The limitations of automatic flagging are exemplified by social media platforms, which tend to rely on broadly defined policies and automated tools to enforce bans on “inappropriate content”. Due to the subjective nature of definitions of obscenity, censorship systems end up making mistakes.


The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights this problem in an article critiquing Tumblr’s “adult content” ban; the ban resulted in the flagging of images of puppies, fully-clothed people, and even raw chicken. Similarly, Facebook’s policy regarding nudity has led to images of famous statues and paintings being taken down.


In addition to false flags on content, automated reporting can also lead to possible embarrassing erroneous emails for accessing child pornography sent to users or employers .

Network Interference and Freedom of Expression


If ISPs or government bodies are given increased power to block certain sites, there is a risk that this power will be abused. Broadly applicable cybercrime laws are increasingly being employed by governments in order to restrict freedom of expression online. All across Southeast Asia, web content is being blocked not only for violating laws, but also for challenging social norms or threatening political powers [The Rapid Rise of Censorship in Southeast Asia ; OONI Southeast Asia Regional Workshop Report].   


Here in Malaysia, we have witnessed network interference restricting freedom of expression online. ISPs and telecommunications companies must comply with directives from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to restrict access to websites deemed illegal. However, blocked content has included that which falls beyond the category of illegal material.


In 2015, the government blocked various news portals and private blogs which reported on the notorious 1MDB scandal [EFF Deeplinks 2015 ; GE13 Censorship of On-line Media in Malaysia]. More recently, Sinar Project detected censorship of LGBT community/news sites in Malaysia [Online LGBT Censorship Malaysia].


Given this context, we must be wary of calls to put greater power in the hands of government and companies to monitor and block online content.

Limitations of Blocking Illegal Content


According to experts, even if governments and ISPs heighten their efforts to eliminate the dissemination of child pornography, it would remain effectively impossible to do so.


Several factors pose challenges for blocking child pornography online. For instance, the borderless nature of the Internet means that the online source of child pornography often resides in foreign countries.


International efforts have been made to address the issue, including the dissemination of international blacklists. For instance, INTERPOL works with international police forces to maintain a “Worst of” list - a list of domains containing the websites that disseminate the most severe child abuse material globally. MCMC and the police have used this list to identify and block websites in Malaysia


However, methods used to block these sites have typically been limited to blocking the Domain Name System (DNS) or IP address - restrictions which are easily circumvented. Individuals producing the pornographic materials can simply create mirror sites or different web address.


Furthermore, it is difficult to block materials circulated in private or encrypted peer-to-peer websites. If authorities block websites containing child pornography, individuals will continue to circulate the material via private channels.


This brings us back to the question of privacy and mass surveillance. Forbidding/flagging encryption and giving intermediaries the power to monitor personal communications means sacrificing our right to privacy and safety. Personal data of over 32 million subscribers of Malaysian telecommunications companies were leaked in 2014. Surveillance of unencrypted private communications puts Malaysians at risk of another incident of mass leaking of personal data.

Alternative Solutions


So what should be done to address and prevent child pornography?

Tech Initiatives

Despite the challenges discussed above, there are technological initiatives out there which provide potentially viable means to help address the problem of child pornography.


Some of these initiatives assist law enforcement. For instance, Project VIC works to develop technologies to assist child exploitation investigations. Their methodologies include crowdsourcing police work to provide investigators with better data.


One form of technology supported by Project VIC is image recognition, to aid law enforcement in identifying child victims. For example, F1 is a custom technology that helps investigators identify hidden or obscured images, and which allows for abusive material to be cropped and matched against other video categories.


Photo DNA is another technology, developed by Microsoft, that compiles a digital signature of images, which can be matched against a database of known child-pornography images. Photo DNA significantly reduces time spent by law enforcement officers viewing images to determine if the victims are currently at-risk, or if they have already been identified.

International Blacklists

As mentioned above, international blacklists (or “block lists”) are useful for identifying websites that disseminate child abuse material worldwide. Blacklists, such as INTERPOLS's "Worst of" list, rely on access blocking as a preventative police tool; traffic from Internet users to domains on the lists are redirected to a “stop page” which explains the reason for the redirection, links to legislation, etc.


International block lists do not address difficulties associated with blocking content. For instance, they do not address the circumventable nature of typical blocking methods and the prominence of content circulated in encrypted/private channels.


However, international block lists present a number of benefits for preventing the dissemination of child pornography. The fact that they are maintained by international bodies (such as INTERPOL), as opposed to a government body, ensures a level of objectivity; this may help prevent abuse of power by governments that are inclined to block websites to further political agendas.


Moreover, block lists avoid some of the problems associated with privacy; they are simply used for access blocking and do not provide identifiable information such as timestamps and IP addresses.

Legislative Responses

International guidelines and agreements should be incorporated into national plans to address child pornography [World Bank Report]. This includes legally binding tools, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Malaysia is a signatory. Another important legally binding tool is the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (or “OPSC”).


Such instruments should be used to analyze national legislative and regulatory responses to online child abuse and exploitation. Adhering to internationally agreed upon guidelines will help ensure appropriate responses from government; international tools can help in identifying gaps in domestic law compared to good practice at the international level. International instruments should be employed to verify progress made by Malaysia’s law and policy to comply with relevant international standards.

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