A political row is brewing in Germany over an Internet filtering system that is blocking the Pirate Party. Note, not the Pirate Bay, but the Pirate Party. The blocking was discovered by a schoolboy trying to read its election manifesto and has emerged in the run up to todays poll in the German State of North-Rhein Westfalia, which covers the big cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf, as well as the industrial Ruhr. With the Pirate Party getting serious votes in Germany, the blocks look rather like political censorship.
According Netzpolitik, the leading German commentator on Internet matters, a schoolboy in the rural town of Soest was trying to access the Pirate Party website in order to tell a friend about its election manifesto. Instead of the site, a notice slammed down on the screen saying ‘The requested page is blocked’. The page was classifed under ‘illegal drugs’.
The block was imposed by the school’s Internet filtering system, operated by a company called Time for Kids. It seems this system is widely used by schools in Germany, and the filters are put in place by the supplier, not by the school.
Time for Kids gave a hostile response to the Netzpolitik story. In a press release, they attacked Netzpolitik and other bloggers for fear-mongering. At least, that is the best translation I can do. The word they actually used is rather colourful, but untranslateable. They said that the blogs are full of “shitstorm-verdächtige Kommentare”. Verdächtig means suspicious. I think we get the message.
Time for Kids said that they do not create the filtering database used by the system they install in German schools. They rely on a database supplied by IBM, which crawls the web and categorises webpages according to its own internal algorithms.
The story would normally be a storm – or should I say a shitstorm – in a teacup, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Pirate Party is a serious contender in the North-Rhein Westfalia election. It has already won seats in Berlin. Any seats it might win in North-Rhein Westfalia could affect the balance of power, which is dependent on coalition politics. Hence it attracts media coverage in mainstream press like Der Spiegel, which do not usually cover minor parties.
***Update 14 May - the Pirate Party got 7.5% of the vote, and 18 out of 221 seats in the North Rhein Westfalia assembly.***
Thus, a filtering system that blocks the Pirate Party – and notably blocks its manifesto - is blocking political debate, and is contravening the right to freedom of expression.
The story neatly illustrates the problem of asking intermediaries to run filtering systems. The intermediaries buy in the filters from somewhere else. The supplier of the filters is more than likely not even in Europe. The filtering database is populated - that is the filters are put into it – by an automated robot which works according to mathematical algorithms. If it sees ‘cannabis’ it classifies the page under ‘illegal drugs’. The people implementing the system will decide that all pages under ‘illegal drugs’ should be blocked. Nobody checks, no-one is answerable, no-one is responsible. We do not know who the programmers or algorithm writers are. We do not know what briefing they were given.
Netzpolitik have suggested that is a case of over-blocking. I would go further, and say this is erroneous blocking. It is wrongful categorisation. It will happen all the time, unless someone steps in. And, even worse, it opens the door to so much potential abuse.
For more on use of filtering systems by Internet intermediaries, see my previous article How Vodafone censors your Internet
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