Published on 22 Jul 2013

Big questions over Cameron’s plans to combat internet porn

David Cameron’s announcement of a crackdown on online pornography aims to tackle an issue some believe is having a corrosive effect, not just on children, but society more generally.

There are two issues under the microscope: images of child sexual abuse, or “child pornography”, and adult pornography.

Even though the prime minister is addressing both in today’s speech, they are very separate fields. Child pornography is probably the only subject about which there is genuine consensus across the internet. From hackers to chief executives, everyone agrees that child porn is wrong (with the exception of the tiny minority of paedophiles interested in accessing it).

Internet companies already work to prevent access to child porn – internet service providers (ISPs) like BT, Sky and Virgin Media block websites hosting this content. When Google’s powerful web crawling software finds such images, it reports the addresses to the Internet Watch Foundation, to which many companies contribute money.

Mr Cameron wants them to go further, suggesting that search engines should simply refuse to provide search results for certain blacklisted terms.

“There are some searches which are so abhorrent and where they can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent of the searcher that there should be no search results returned at all,” he said.

There are two problems here: firstly, is it really possible to discern the intent from the search term (for example, is a search for “child porn” aiming to find the actual content, or just research material about it?).

Secondly, it is unlikely that paedophiles are turning to mainstream search engines to find this content. The exchange of these images takes place instead on niche chat forums, and through the so-called dark web, which can only be accessed by using special anonymising software.

On legal, adult pornography, the prime minister is trying to address concerns (from the likes of Claire Perry MP, his special adviser on preventing the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood) that the easy availability of porn online is damaging to children’s upbringing.

He wants ISPs to introduce an opt-in system, so that if a customer wants access to porn they must actively choose this. That’s a shift from the ISPs’ preference, which is for porn to be available by default, but for customers to be able to opt out of being able to see it.

The ISPs do not see it as their job to police what their customers do online – they see it as the thin end of a very big wedge which will eventually see them held accountable for their customers’ internet use. They also argue that automated systems mean families will become complacent about teaching their children to use the internet.

There’s also a huge question mark over how such automated opt-in systems work. Some sites are clearly pornographic, but what about the work of Spencer Tunick, whose photographs of massed nudes might fall foul of the restrictions?

Many pages on the blogging site Tumblr contain pornographic content. Automated systems still struggle to work out which pages to block.

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3 reader comments

  1. Nick says:

    Cameron just wants to be seen as doing something “good” what he should do is ignore the advice to delay plain cigarette packaging and go ahead with that now. He is telling the internet industry to do something they already do – tackle child porn. Then telling them to do something that is none of their business and that is to block access to material on the internet that can be bought in any newsagent shop.

    Blocking search terms is fraught with problems. Imagine running a search for kid leather, perfectly legitimate search, but could surely fall foul of blocked search terms. I know some of the images I found when looking for leather made from kid skin were not what I was looking for!

  2. Murvis says:

    I thought child porn was already illegal and heavily monitored by the police?

    also,

    the notion of ‘certain blacklisted terms’ has a very 1984 feel about it

    If you want to deal with the sexualisation or exploitation of children, go for the fashion houses and companies like disney who seem to specialise in making little girls into wilful slaves and objects. but hang on, don’t they have a lot of expensive lawyers to keep you in check?

    this is another chest puffing exercise, and a massive waste of everybody’s time

  3. quietoaktree says:

    About three weeks ago a program was loaded onto my Mac without prior notification –in a fraction of a second –disturbing previous settings. I know of two further cases.

    This is just an excuse to legitimate Tempora and Prism — nothing more.

    As W. C. Fields said — ” Never give a sucker an even break”

    — and that is exactly what is happening !

Comments are closed.