German Government Tries To Censor Publication Of Its List Of Censored Websites

from the let's-keep-it-quiet-by-making-it-even-more-public dept

A few weeks ago, an anonymous internet user was able to acquire and subsequently extract a website blacklist used by Germany's Federal Department of Media Harmful to Young Children (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien [BPjM]). This un-hashed list was posted to the user's Neocities blog, along with some analysis of the blacklist's contents and a rundown on the minimal protective efforts used for the list.

The actual blacklist is much more extensive than what's published here. In fact, as is noted in the post, a majority of the list is publicly viewable.

The censorship list ("index") is split into various sublists:

Sublist A: Works that are harmful to young people
Sublist B: Works whose distribution is prohibited under the Strafgesetzbuch (German Criminal Code) (in the opinion of the BPjM)
Sublist E: Entries prior to April 1, 2003
Sublist C: All indexed virtual works harmful to young people whose distribution is prohibited under Article 4 of the Jugendmedienschutz-Staatsvertrag
Sublist D: All indexed virtual works, which potentially have content whose distribution is prohibited under the Strafgesetzbuch.


The sublists A, B and E contain about 3000 movies, 400 games, 900 printed works and 400 audio recordings. That sublists are quarterly published in the magazine "BPjM-aktuell" which can be read in any major library in Germany.
Sublists C and D are what's been withheld from the public, even as these URLs are distributed once a month to software and hardware companies. As of the time of the posting, there were more than 3,000 URLs on the blacklist.

The leaker spotted some unusual things in the list of banned URLs. To begin with, it appears that there's very little effort being made to keep the blacklist current.
On only about 50-60% of the domains on the list the questionable content is still accessible: About 10% of the domains are not registered at all, another 10% are parked domains, and about 20% don't provide any content at all (either no DNS A record, no webserver on port 80 or a redirect to another domain).
Beyond that, the government body building the list seems to be suffering from technical ineptitude, resulting in supposedly blocked sites not being blocked at all.
The domain "homo.com" offers a wildcard domain which echoes anything that is entered as a subdomain on the website, eg. visiting "Fritz.homo.com" results in a webpage "Haha, Fritz is gay!". On the BPjM list there is a entryirgend.ein.name.homo.com – the German "Irgend ein Name" stands for "any name". Contrary to the belief of the BPjM public servants this doesn't work as a wildcard – just this specific domain will be blocked…

several URLs with a wrong trailing slash:

Death.html/
welcome.htm/
free/index.html/
freecontent.html/


A URL path with a trailing slash means that the part before the slash is a directory and not a file. The examples above are filenames. The entries on the list with the trailing slash are invalid and return a 404 file not found error. The correct URLs without the trailing slashes won't match the hash and are not blocked. Explanation here...
As is inevitable when entities pursue bulk website blocking, non-offending content is part of the collateral damage.
[T]he complete sell list of leading online music database Discogs. Probably at one point in time there was a listing of a music album which is forbidden in Germany – this was enough to block access to the "eBay of music" for years...

[A]ccording to archive.org the domain facegoo.com is since at least 3 years not an porn website anymore. Now it is the website of an iPhone App for fun picture manipulation. The startup has no chance to be listed in German search engine results at all...
This is on top of strange and very arbitrary blockages, like a listing for the videogame Dead Island at amazon.co.uk and a few offending YouTube accounts whose account pages are blocked, but not the offending videos themselves.

Beyond that, the list covers a wide variety of offensive-to-the-German-government (and in some cases, offensive to nearly everyone) content, including "normal porn, animal porn, child/teen porn, violence, suicide, nazi or anorexia." Notably, the Wikipedia page quoted in this post points out that BPjM is an anomaly in the "free" world.
Germany is the only western democracy with an organization like the BPjM... The rationales for earlier decisions to add works to the index are, in retrospect, incomprehensible reactions to moral panics.
With its secret list exposed, the German government has gone after Neocities in a belated attempt to keep its no-longer-secret list secret. Neocities has complied, but not without protest.
An anti-censorship activist, concerned citizen and security researcher has proved that the hashes are very easily reversible, and published the disclosure, including a plain-text list of the censored sites on a Neocities page. Now the German government is pressuring Neocities to take the site down, and are claiming we were breaking German (and possibly US) law by hosting a copy of the list of sites that they distribute.
The letter from KJM (Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media) makes some rather odd statements.
Two lists (containing URLs) were published on one of your blogs, namely https://bpjmleak.neocities.org/. The list of URLs contains child sexual abuse material (CSAM), animal pornography, nazi propaganda, minors in poses involving unnatural sexual emphasis and content inciting hatred, just to name a few. All of the URLs are illegal under German law. Since CSAM is also illegal under US law, we are of the opinion that this site violates the laws applying to your service and also violates your terms of conditions.
More properly stated, the websites contain the offensive material, not the URLs themselves. And, as was pointed out by the person researching the list, much of what's in the list is out of date (i.e., the URL no longer contains the illegal content, domain is expired, etc.) or is ineptly targeted (typos, invalid URLs, etc.), which means the list isn't nearly as useful as the government believes.

And, if the statement about violating two countries' laws wasn't (theoretically) frightening enough, KJM goes on to claim that posting this content violates Neocities own mission statement. (No. Really.)
The KJM sees that neocities values anonymity and states to be uncensored. But the KJM thinks that https://bpjmleak.neocities.org/ is not what your service is intentionally for as your website states: “But our goal is clear: to enable you to harness the creativity, beauty, and power of creating your own web site. To rebuild the web we lost to monotony, and make it fun again.”
The statement is truly wondrous in its inanity, approaching the level of non sequitur. At no point does the mission statement encourage the stripping of anonymity or encourage censorship. Neocities is a platform for website construction, something KJM believes is somehow contrary to sticking up for its users and their content. Leave it to a government agency to craft one of the emptiest paragraphs to ever grace an official takedown request.

The biggest issue is the list itself, the one the government wants to keep out of the hands of the public, as Neocities points out.
There is apparently no legal way to challenge the list. It is decided by fiat in secret by a German government agency, and there is little or zero recourse for those falsely condemned.
By keeping it secret -- ostensibly to prevent the public from accessing illegal content -- website owners are kept in the dark about the German government's censorious efforts. This sort of power is dangerous without accountability. The list is outdated and composed carelessly. Sites like Discogs are blocked off while true offenders remain uncensored because the "for the children" agency can't be bothered to ensure its slash marks are properly used or that the URL is free of typos.

Neocities has discussed this unofficially with the EFF but, as the post notes, the legal implications of this leaked list are still very murky. As a precaution the list has been removed. (It survives, for now, at the Internet Archive.) And, if given notification that the posting of the list does not violate US law, the BPjM blacklist will be reposted. Either way, Neocities states that it will not punish the end user in any way and that his/her access to the site will remain intact.

The ultimate stupidity of this debacle is the fact that the German government thinks it can undo what's been done. By acting in this fashion, it's only drawn more attention to the list it wants to remain a secret. Worse, it's drawn more attention to the blog post highlighting the many failures of the list itself. It's one thing to want to prevent access to clearly illegal material. It's quite another to slap together a list composed of dead sites, mistyped URLs and a variety of bizarre blockings based on "incomprehensible reactions to moral panics."


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Ninja (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 5:25am

    Yet another example why "black lists" don't work. So most lists and blockades around the world fit within the following:

    - Are maintained by fallible humans.
    - Have few to none oversight.
    - Do not provide any way to be removed in case of err.
    - Are either secret or mostly secret.
    - Are based on subjective standards set up by a small minority.
    - Don't work at all for their intended objectives be them "for the children!" or pure censorship.

    Nice.

     

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  2.  
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    Rikuo (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 5:56am

    For a country so ruddy scared of anyone hearkening back to the "good ol' days" of the tyrannical Nazi regime (to the point you can't even have swastikas in a game about killing said Nazis), they sure don't have a problem acting tyrannical, don't they?

     

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  3.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 6:04am

    So, pretty much normal stuff, then? Outdated list, no checking to see if the blocks are working let alone current, perfectly legitimate content being blocked as collateral damage and attempts to obfuscate rather than fix any of the above predictable problems or redirect resources to workable solutions for the problem at hand.

    It's sad how utterly predictable this is.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 6:16am

    Two lists (containing URLs) were published on one of your blogs, namely https://bpjmleak.neocities.org/. The list of URLs contains child sexual abuse material (CSAM), animal pornography, nazi propaganda, minors in poses involving unnatural sexual emphasis and content inciting hatred, just to name a few. All of the URLs are illegal under German law.

    I'm amazed that anyone can still come to the conclusion that when faced with a large number of things you are concerned about people seeing, the first step is to put them all in a big list.

    The Germans have taken it one step further - they then categorized this list. Now, what do you call it when you scan the internet for URL's, determine what is on the pages, index the pages into categories that can be easily searched, and then publish the information? Oh yeah, you call that Google, don't you?

     

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  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 6:21am

    Pastebin mirror

     

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  6.  
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    jackn, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:22am

    pretty fricken bad if someone has to check if publishing a list is against the law. Lists don't kill people, guns do.

     

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  7.  
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    Sheogorath (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:29am

    Re:

    Unless the websites of the local police and the white pages are included in a blacklist (collateral damage), and you can't use a printed white pages during an emergency. Simples!

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Case, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:36am


    Two lists (containing URLs) were published on one of your blogs, namely https://bpjmleak.neocities.org/. The list of URLs contains child sexual abuse material (CSAM), animal pornography, nazi propaganda, minors in poses involving unnatural sexual emphasis and content inciting hatred, just to name a few. All of the URLs are illegal under German law.

    Maybe they should look up their own regulations: List D contains URLS illegal under German law, however list C is just your average adult site blacklist. The "leak" contains both lists, therefore "all of the URLs are illegal under German law" is just bullshit -- youporn and other sites in the list are decidedly legal, they just must not be made available to minors.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Some German, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:40am

    Some Clarifications

    So just to clarify a few things about this because I think the article is a little misleading in some ways.

    First I want to say though, that I do view the BPjM very critical and dangerous. I am quite open to the idea of getting rid of it, it is outdated and obsolete. But you also have to know that Germans aren't first amendment maximalists. Given the historical context we view such a stance with caution (and rightly so in my opinion).

    To the article: it is worth noting that the URLs aren't censored on a hardware/ISP level so that Germans can't view them. The idea behind those lists (for the vast majority on it)is to limit access for young adults not the general public. There are restrictions concerning advertising and tv broadcasts for example but in general books, cds etc on the lists can be purchased by asking for them in the store, they are just not allowed to be on the shelves.
    This is also true for list B even when it says that distribution is prohibited by law that is an assesment of the BPjM and not binding until a court decides. (Which is rarely but not never the case).

    Back to those URLs as long as you don't run some software that has a youth protection filter on it or enable youth protection from your ISP the only "censorship" is that they won't appear in search engines.

    I have some more issues with saying this is an effort of the German Government to censor something, while the actual organizational structure of the BPjM and the KJM are difficult for any outsider to comprehend it should be pointed out that they are not the same. But the Council deciding over indexing stuff is made up of "volunteers" that usually don't hold government jobs (there are mandates as to the configuration: some are clergy some are industry and so on) and the KJM is by definition not allowed to have anyone from the Government in it.

    In Summary: It is not the Government censoring stuff or trying to censor the list of censored stuff. And stuff in Germany does not get censored, at least not in the way suggested here.
    That doesn't change the fact though that the threat by the KJM was stupid and has no basis in law and the function and existence of the BPjM should be questioned.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:45am

    I am a lawbreaker somewhere

    The ultimate stupidity of this debacle is the fact that the German government thinks it can undo what's been done

    The ultimate stupidity, and something everyone should be worried about, is that a citizen of one country is expected to comply with another country's laws.

     

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  11.  
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    techflaws (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:53am

    You're welcome.

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:00am

    Re:

    what do you expect? after WW2 governmental agencies have been rebuild with the same "public servants" that were in charge during the third reich, BND and BKA (the 2 secret services of some description) were partially recruited from SS and GeStaPo officers. That was done because recruiting and training "fresh" ones was too expensive and took too much time the allies in west germany thought was better spent on creating a model capitalist society as a showcase against the soviet Union.

    The De-nazification was only done in homeopathic quantities with some scapegoats, not as a program as widespread as people were led to believe.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    gyffes, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:03am

    Re: Pastebin mirror

    Yeah you!

    Gooooooo, INTERNETS! Suck it, censors!

     

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  14.  
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    Patrick, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:42am

    I didn't read the whole article so I have no comment.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:51am

    Attention!

    This site has been blocked as the German government has declared that it is on the list of sites that can eat a bowl of dicks.

     

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  16.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 9:02am

    Re: Some Clarifications

    I think that you define "censorship" and "government" differently than I do.

    In my view, this is clearly and obviously censorship. That it only applies to a particular form of expression (search results, for instance), doesn't change that. However, I don't think that just because something is censorship automatically means that it's wrong. It's up to Germany to decide what is or is not acceptable censorship in Germany.

    Secondly, that the individuals making the decisions aren't government employees doesn't factor into whether or not this is governmental action. The essential question is: are these decisions enforced through the power of government?

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Case, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 10:21am

    Re: I am a lawbreaker somewhere

    Not the ultimate stupidity but pretty dumb nevertheless: Getting into full "ZOMFG, my national sovereignty" mode over something that simply reading the article would have cleared up. The BPjM's claim is that Since CSAM [aka child porn] is also illegal under US law, we are of the opinion that this site violates the laws applying to your service and also violates your terms of conditions.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Case, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 10:41am

    Re: Some Clarifications

    There are restrictions concerning advertising and tv broadcasts for example but in general books, cds etc on the lists can be purchased by asking for them in the store, they are just not allowed to be on the shelves.

    "Restrictions concerning advertising" is putting it mildly. Media on the index must not be displayed in stores, reviewed in magazines, named in any "top games of the year" lists, and not be sold via mail. So legally buying even an A-listed movie or game can be quite a challenge, and if it made it to List B, you really need to know a good local store.

    The situation has gotten more relaxed since 2003, when age ratings became binding (except for parental guardians) and in return anything which does have a rating cannot be put on the index any more. But if the BPjM strikes, it still presents a major obstacle for adults who want to legally buy something they are fully entitled to own -- while the kids simply torrent a copy.

     

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  19.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 11:09am

    Re: Re:

    So what you're saying is that HYDRA has been running SHIELD all along? :P

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 1:58pm

    Re: Some Clarifications

    Back to those URLs as long as you don't run some software that has a youth protection filter on it or enable youth protection from your ISP the only "censorship" is that they won't appear in search engines.
    Which the ECJ equates with being entirely "forgotten." I suppose having something erased from the collective memory of an entire nation isn't necessarily censorship... but I'm at a loss for a better word.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Some German, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 1:51am

    Re:

    @16
    You're right we seem to have different standards of what censorship and governmental action is. To me it's true censorship when something becomes illegal, for example a book that becomes illegal to posses or a website/url illegal to visit. But I agree with your point on what you call censorship.

    The second point I can't agree on, when you break a contract that contract is enforced through the power of government but doesnt make the contract a government action. As I said, the organizational structure here is difficult but the KJM employees are forced by law not to be part of the government.
    @18 I do not disagree the BPjM classification do pose a major hurdle to people buying articles that are indexed. My issues are not with criticism of that. My major issue was that the article was written in a way that suggests:
    a) That these links are blocked from the German Internetuser and/or illegal to visit - this is not that case, there are restrictions yes but these websites are still accessible without the need to circumvent any technical barriers
    b) That these were actions of the German Government. They weren't.

    I very much welcome criticism of the contents of these lists, the obvious incompetence with which they are composed and maintained some times and in my personal opinion the BPjM could be done with alltogether, it's become obselete in it's current form.
    (For example: an open! list available to parents for them to decide if they want to block it for their kids(below the age of 14) would be fine with me)

    @20 Yeah the ECJ ruling is stupid. There is a difference between having death.com not appear which is easy to remember and some sub-url to an article you wouldn't find without a search engine. That being said, I think my answer to #18 gives my perspective on this and what I took issue with in the article.

     

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  22.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 3:55pm

    Re: Re:

    The second point I can't agree on, when you break a contract that contract is enforced through the power of government but doesnt make the contract a government action.

    A contract is entered into bilaterally and voluntarily. We're talking about something imposed on businesses by the government. Can search engines operating in Germany choose to ignore these restrictions without repercussions from the government? If not, then it's clearly a government action, regardless of who is typing up the lists.

    a) That these links are blocked from the German Internetuser and/or illegal to visit - this is not that case, there are restrictions yes but these websites are still accessible without the need to circumvent any technical barriers

    I don't think the point, or complaint, is that it's now impossible or very difficult to access the material. If anything, the fact that it's still easy for anyone who is really interested just makes it that much more pointless (if also less harmful).

    b) That these were actions of the German Government. They weren't.

    If this is just some volunteer organization with no authority to enforce anything against anybody, you have a point. Is that the case?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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