Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Can You Make Porn Come Back On My Internet, Please?

Based on the reactions I've read on Facebook & Twitter I was concerned at the seemingly unfeasible and possibly oppressive plan David Cameron has for Internet censorship.

This is one area politicians are keen to stick their noses into as it plays to a very strong concern amongst parents about their children accessing inappropriate, even vile and illegal material on the web. It almost always ends badly, usually in embarrassing retreat but can also result in overbearing legislation that potentially infringes freedom of expression.

I gleaned from the various social media comments and the odd blog post I had time to read that there was a lot of confusion out there. Just some of the things Cameron apparently wants to do are: a) ban access to illegal porn via the Internet b) limit access to all porn on the Internet c) make all porn illegal d) define what is and is not porn himself e) maintain a central list of all pervs who are "opted into" porn etc etc. it gets sillier and sillier the more you read.

Some points of concern, however certainly resonate with me. One good point made by (an unsurprisingly) critical article in The Independent, was that we don't need filters we need more effort invested in identifying and closing down illegal porn production and distribution on the Internet. Very wise, I thought.

But, given the high proportion of conspiracy theorising and deliberate, politically motivated obfuscation of the subject clearly aimed at making the proposals sound ridiculous and unworkable, I felt I needed to read the proposal from the horses keyboard (yes, I know, that doesn't make any sense). So, I searched out what Cameron actually said. Here it is:

As I said today, there are two big things we’re going to do.


First, we’re going to help mums and dads stop their children looking at adult material. For too long, parents have been on their own in this fight.

So today we’ve announced big, new steps forward. In a nutshell, the internet providers have agreed to do much more to filter inappropriate images out – they are going to install family friendly filters automatically unless you, as a parent, say otherwise.


Second, we need to do much more to eradicate vile and illegal images of child abuse from the internet. As a Government we will boost police action, back the Internet Watch Foundation and ensure there is one database to pool intelligence.

At the moment, search engines aren’t doing enough. So today I’ve said loud and clear to Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest – they have got to stop letting people put in these disgusting search terms. If they don’t commit to action, or progress is too slow, we are already looking at how we can change the law to make them.

I want Britain to be the best place in the world to raise a family. That's why we need to take action now. Fundamentally this is about protecting childhood itself - few things matter more.

So, he wants to make existing filters default to on. These filters already define what is and isn't porn in a way that isn't causing enormous concern. And, if you aren't happy with the restriction, you can opt out.

Additionally, Cameron wants to boost investment in the current police operations identifying and closing down online child abuse, rape and other illegal images. I can only suppose The Independent journalist missed this bit when he made his excellent point calling for Cameron to do exactly this. This is probably the most effective part of his proposals, as a lot of the really awful porn is accessed via private and peer to peer networks that require intelligence and investigation to crack.

He also wants search engines to block certain search terms. This is a problematic suggestion, as who decides what terms are unacceptable? I can well understand the censorship and practical concerns here. But, assuming the terms are universally accepted as unacceptable, "child rape" for example, that would be okay, wouldn't it? As long as legitimate sites that exist to support abused children aren't filtered from the results as well. The real issue, it seems to me, is setting a precedent of politician defining "unacceptable terms". What's to stop a future Labour Prime Minister (perhaps Andy Burnham) adding "NHS quality of care failures" to the list of terms that must not return any results, for example?

So, while I'm never comfortable with politicians interfering with Internet freedom, as a parent with genuine concerns about what my children (once they're older and more tech savvy) may stumble across on the web, I think they are fairly measured policy suggestions. Only time will tell how successful they will be in practice. The anti side of the reaction today seems a bit shrill and premature (but then that's what watching too much porn does to you, I suppose).

The threat of legislation is a big worry. It would be preferable for the industry to put its own house in order. I'm sure motivation for them to do so is the point of the threat. But should it come to legislation, then there will be big questions about definitions, future safeguards against political interference etc. Again, we should flush that tissue when we come on it. (Sorry)

Having read the anti-change Facebook and Twitter comments again, I think I know what is really bothering some of them. It's almost certainly the realisation that they will either have to ask their wives for permission to (in the, slightly modified, words of Alan Partridge) make pornography come back on the Internet, or have to resort to lingerie catalogues or, most controversial of all, actual sex with their partners.

It's a hard (hopefully) life.