Colin George: Internet porn clampdown brings mixed reactions

David Cameron’s new measures ostensibly to control the internet has been hailed and scorned in equal measure. The Journal's Colin George was not impressed

Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his speech about cracking down on online pornography
Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his speech about cracking down on online pornography

Standing on a podium, in front of an NSPCC banner, the Prime Minster addressed the assembled audience of experts and reporters, and said: “This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.”

And with that, what had started out as presumably a laudable campaign to prevent child abuse images being circulated had morphed into something entirely different.

Now Mr Cameron is threatening to impose new legislation on global search firms and ISPs if they fail to stop any content Conservative grassroots supporters do not like. Let us be clear on what the PM is suggesting.

He is trying to police the entire internet, which is a foolhardy exercise that will not work.

But more on that later. To recap, his proposals include:

Possessing violent pornography containing simulated rape scenes will be made a crime in England and Wales and videos streamed online in the UK will be subject to the same restrictions as those sold in shops.

Internet service providers will be forced to introduce family-friendly filters which automatically block pornography unless customers choose to opt out.

Experts from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), which is set to become part of the National Crime Agency, will be given enhanced powers to examine secretive file-sharing networks.

And a secure database of banned child porn images gathered by police across the country will be used to trace illegal content and the paedophiles viewing it.

So there you go, in one fell swoop legal, adult pornography has been rolled in together with sick child abuse images.

For starters, I should be clear that any effort to stop to the trade in horrific child abuse images is, in principle, to be applauded.

And this is what makes criticising the proposals difficult – anyone who does could be accused of supporting this vile behaviour.

That has made the conflation of legal pornography with child abuse a political masterstroke by the Conservatives as it will insulate them, for the time being at least, from the fallout these plans will inevitably cause.

Labour’s attack dogs will be muzzled while the spin doctors work out a way to highlight the insanity of the proposals.

And after Mr Cameron described some websites as “poisonous” outlets which are “corroding childhood”, this will be a tough task.

In his speech, he said: “I want to talk about the internet. The impact it is having on the innocence of our children. How online pornography is corroding childhood. And how, in the darkest corners of the internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children, and that must be stamped out.”

Here we see again the conflation of legal pornography (although you might not like it) and child abuse imagery.

But significantly, he went on to say of the plans: “It doesn’t mean, for instance, it will block access to a newspaper like The Sun, it wouldn’t block that – but it would block pornography.”

So fans of Page 3 can breathe a sigh of relief – our Government does not object to that sort of porn.

He added: “I’m not making this speech because I want to moralise or scaremonger, but because I feel profoundly as a politician, and as a father, that the time for action has come. This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence.”

These so-called family friendly filters will be the default setting for new broadband customers by the end of the year and only account holders will be able to change them.

Existing customers will have to choose whether to install the filters by the end of 2014, Mr Cameron added.

He continued: “We are not prescribing how the ISPs should contact their customers – it’s up to them to find their own technological solutions. But however they do it, there will be no escaping this decision, no ‘remind me later’ and then it never gets done.

“And they will ensure it is an adult making the choice. If adults don’t want these filters, that’s their decision.”

So there we have the crux of it. Parents are not responsible enough to police the children’s use of the internet, so legislation may have to be brought in. With regard to the new database of child abuse images, Mr Cameron said internet search engines had agreed to scan proactively for, block and remove the pictures when they appear.

But he gave search firms including Google an October deadline to introduce further measures to block access to illegal content by blacklisting searches based on certain phrases, claiming it has a “moral duty” to act.

It’s time to break this down a little bit. Firstl Google et al already seek to remove illegal images as soon as they appear, and they specifically try not to index these pages.

And as for blocking certain search terms for things such as rape porn, the detail on this was embarrassingly thin, probably because it will be unworkable.

How is a film critic supposed to research the rape scene in the 1988 movie The Accused, a profoundly disturbing sequence for which Jodie Foster rightly won a best actress Oscar?

Perhaps the benefits outweigh the impracticalities. Certainly Professors Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley, of Durham Law School at Durham University, are in favour of reforming the law on extreme pornography to include images of rape.

They are long-term critics of the extreme pornography law and have argued that the failure to include rape pornography was a “missed opportunity” to take action against the “normalisation” of sexual violence.

They argue that rape pornography is harmful in creating a culture in which rape is not taken seriously.

There is much to be admired around the tireless work of campaigners to stop the propagation of rape images. But still, the devil will be in the detail about how this content can be blocked.

A similar idea to this Government’s plans was floated in Australia, but swiftly dropped when it was discovered any block could restrict access to, among other things, sexual health information, LGBT issues, rape advice and even renaissance artworks.

Padraig Reidy, of the Index on Censorship, echoed those concerns, saying: “If we have, as the Prime Minister is suggesting, an opt-out filter we have a kind of default censorship in place.

“Families should be able to choose if they want to opt in to censorship. If a filter is set up as a default, then it can really restrict what people can see legitimately.

“Sites about sexual health, about sexuality and so on, will get caught up in the same filters as pornography. It will really restrict people’s experience on the web, including children’s.”

Also, if these proposals ever do become law, one awaits the inevitable court case from an artist/painter/film company/game manufacturer whose work is erroneously blocked and who suffers damages because of it.

One significant question is whether these proposals will ever make even the slightest dent in the trade of child abuse images since much of it takes place in a shadowy world known as the “Dark Internet”.

This place is at the very fringes of society, where a hitman can be bought for £10,000, drug deals are enacted and the flow of personal data stolen through ID fraud generates millions of pounds for blackmarket criminals.

Many experts believe this is the place where the vast majority of child abuse images are shared, way beyond the indexing of Google, a fact admitted by Christian Berg, chief executive officer at NetClean, which works with ISPs and companies to prevent the exchange of child abuse images.

He said: “Blocking search terms will raise the bar for initial access to this content, but the fact remains that the vast majority of this material is not found on the open, searchable internet.

“Stronger laws are a great exercise in demonstrating the strength of will behind this campaign – however, the core of the solution is technology and ensuring that the technology available to track, find and disrupt this crime is used effectively worldwide.”

Former Ceop chairman Jim Gamble, who resigned in protest over the merger with the National Crime Agency, even warned the Government was not doing enough to deter paedophiles.

“We have got to get the balance right,” he said. “The balance is attack the root cause, invest with new money into child protection teams, victim support and policing on the ground. Let’s create a real deterrent, not a pop-up that paedophiles will laugh at.”

Mr Cameron said what would be included in the filters would evolve over time. He said: “The companies themselves are going to design what is automatically blocked, but the assumption is they will start with blocking pornographic sites and also perhaps self-harming sites.”

Mr Cameron said he did not “believe” written pornography, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, would be blocked under the plans.

“It will depend on how the filters work,” he said. “We are at the stage now of the companies – this is not the Government, this is not censorship – this is the Government having worked very hard at talking to all these companies, agreeing with them a new protocol.”

And the Prime Minister added: “I’m not saying we’ve thought of everything and there will be many problems down the line as we deal with this, but we’re trying to crunch through these problems and work out what you can do and can’t do.”

So although I and many others are deeply sceptical of the plans, and don’t believe they are in any way practical, perhaps, with the issue currently leading the national news agenda, it has further highlighted the problem of child abuse images and the dangers of the internet.

And if that has protected one child from the horror of abuse, perhaps that is enough.

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