ISPs slow to back Garda plan to block child sex abuse material

Only one internet service provider has joined scheme to blacklist abuse sites since late 2013

A Garda initiative to block online child sex abuse material has received the co-operation of just one internet service provider (ISP) since it was launched over four years ago.

In November 2013, the Department of Justice announced new arrangements “whereby the gardaí and individual ISPs will co-operate in blocking access to sites containing child pornography”.

Under the scheme gardaí provide blacklists to ISPs of websites which they believe contain images and videos of child sex abuse.

The ISPs would then block access to the sites while efforts are made to track down the uploaders and remove the material from the web permanently.


The willingness of ISPs to take part was welcomed at the time by then minister for justice Alan Shatter.

However, the vast majority of Irish ISPs have so far refused to take part in the scheme, citing concerns about a lack of legal protection when blocking sites.

A Garda spokesman told The Irish Times one ISP has so far signed up to the scheme, over four years after it was first announced.

“This initiative is up and running – an ISP has signed up to the initiative and the blocking arrangement with that company is currently working very well,” he said, declining to name the company.

Legal query

He said a legal query has arisen about the blocking initiative and once it is resolved, agreements with other ISPs will be signed. “In addition, once we have that legal clarification, all other ISPs will be canvassed once again as to whether they wish to partake in the initiative.”

The Internet Service Providers’ Association of Ireland (ISPAI), an umbrella group representing 51 ISPs, says blocking sites should only be done “in accordance with legislation”.

It wants legislation in place to prevent ISPs being exposed to liability for mistakenly blocking legal websites. Legislation is also needed so authorities cannot interfere with the public's freedom to access legal content, said Ana Niculescu of the ISPAI.

She said removing child abuse imagery is far more effective than just blocking it and that blocking mechanisms are easy to circumvent. She pointed to, an initiative operated by the ISPAI, which works to remove child abuse material when alerted to it by the public.

“I dare to ask if your most vulnerable and humiliating moment was captured on camera and shared via the Internet; would you want it removed immediately or would you feel comfortable knowing that it is temporarily ‘hidden’ from access?” she asked.

‘Kick into shape’

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay strongly criticised the ISPAI’s refusal to block sites and said he is in favour of legislation to “kick them into shape” and make the blocking of material mandatory rather than optional.

“The only imperative that is of interest to the ISPAI is the commercial imperative,” he said. “I’m in favour of legislation. I don’t think they will ever take the harm that can be done to young people seriously without the law.”

Other child protection advocates argue blocking should be done in conjunction with removal of the material, which, they state, can take a long time when it’s being hosted outside the country, as is the case the vast majority of the time.

"During that time anyone encountering the image can copy and redistribute it; can encounter it and become curious to the material," said Pat McKenna of Childwatch, an internet child safety group.

Jillian Van Turnhout, who campaigned in the Seanad for increased blocking mechanisms for online child abuse material, accepted skilled internet users could circumvent most blocking mechanisms but said this was not the point.

“It’s about stopping people viewing it for the first time and getting sucked in. Most people who view and distribute these images first view them accidentally when looking at legal material,” she said. “Blocking would stop them going down that road.”

“Nobody is naive enough to believe we can stop it all, but we can stop some of it.”

She said she cannot see why ISPs require protective legislation and points to a similar successful UK initiative which operates without a legislative framework. She also pointed out Irish ISPs readily block websites sharing pirated movies and music without accompanying legislation.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is "strongly supportive of the work of An Garda Síochána in its implementation of the blocking initiative and in its continuing interaction with more internet service provider companies with a view to broadening the initiative", a department spokesman said.

They stated the Government would hold an “open policy debate on online safety” on March 9th.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times