The PM’s plan to crack down on child porn is fraught with problems, and many question his motives, writes Dani Garavelli
THERE is little doubt that when David Cameron announced a multi-pronged attack on online pornography – both illegal images of child abuse and legal images of consenting adults which can be accessed by children – at the headquarters of the NSPCC in London last week, he was expecting a hearty pat on the back from campaigners, politicians and the mainstream media.
Like John Major, who embarked on a crackdown on video “nasties” after the James Bulger case, the Prime Minister was acting in the wake of two horrific murders – those of Tia Sharp and April Jones, whose killers downloaded child pornography – and under pressure from child protection charities, newspapers of all political hues and Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Yet his plans, which include forcing search engines like Google to react when trigger words related to child porn are entered and introducing an opt-in system for those who want access to adult porn online, have been met with scepticism – and not only from civil liberty groups which might be expected to oppose any attempts to limit access to legal material on freedom of speech grounds.
While, understandably, the parents of the two dead girls want action to prevent paedophiles accessing the kinds of images their killers Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger viewed before attacking their victims, others have pointed out the futility of tackling child porn – a tiny fraction of which is disseminated on the open internet – through search engines, and questioned whether, since a failsafe system for filtering legal porn is almost certainly unattainable, the opt-in system will give parents a false sense of security.
The former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), Jim Gamble, said paedophiles would laugh if their efforts to access images of child abuse were met with a pop-up reminding them such activities were illegal, while social psychologist and teenage agony aunt Dr Petra Boynton pointed out that overly-stringent filters could prevent troubled teenagers gaining access to information about their sexuality.
So fierce has the backlash been, that even child protection groups such as Children 1st have given the proposals only “guarded” approval; as for Mumsnet, the influential women’s forum whose support Cameron has been so eager to secure in the past, it withdrew its support for legal porn blocks in 2011 when some of its more tech-savvy members pointed out the pitfalls. In particular, there has been unease at the way in which Cameron has conflated child pornography – which is already illegal – with consensual adult images – a move critics, including Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, see as a cynical ploy to garner support for the opt-in system. “If you’ve got people worried about child abuse, then it’s easy to get them to agree to anything at all,” he says.
At the same time, however, there has been a degree of exaggeration on the part of those who oppose Cameron’s stance; some have cited the Streisand effect (the phenomenon whereby banning a particular song/film/website boosts its popularity) as an argument against the proposals, even though, for adults, accessing porn will be as simple as changing which box is ticked when their broadband is installed.
Whatever your views on Cameron’s initiative, it is clear online pornography continues to be problematic for many people. CEOP and the Internet Watch Foundation work hard, but the global nature of the internet and the existence of software such as Tor, which enables online anonymity, mean determined paedophiles can always access and disseminate images of abuse. Meanwhile, a recent study by academics at Plymouth University suggested prepubescent children are becoming desensitised by regular viewing of porn.
“There is some evidence [legal] pornography can be used by other adults as a way of grooming children – as a way of saying ‘this is all right – these people are doing it’ and kind of softening them up with the intention of abusing children themselves,” says Anne Houston, chief executive of Children 1st. “Also, some young people are getting a fairly skewed picture of what sex is and there’s been some evidence of young people trying to mimic what they have seen.”
Given these concerns and the fact that 110,000 people last year signed a petition calling for porn to be blocked, is there anything to be said for Cameron’s measures? And, if not, what can be done to better protect the country’s children?
As far as illegal porn is concerned, Killock is clear: putting pressure on search engines such as Google and Yahoo to offer no returns if certain trigger words are entered will be pretty ineffectual since most images circulate on private networks. “It does seem to be a very low priority compared with, for instance, giving money to the police to investigate child abusers, combatting money laundering to make it impossible to profit from trading in child abuse images and speeding up international cooperations to make take-downs of child abuse as quick and efficient as the banks dealing with phishing scams,” he says.
But the question of how to deal with consensual porn is even more fraught. While there is a consensus on the need to rid the web of images of child abuse (if not the best way to achieve it) there is no such unanimity when it comes to legal sites. Indeed, Cameron’s proposals have polarised the debate, pitting those who believe the state should intervene to stop children accessing porn against those who feel the responsibility lies with parents alone.
There has been a great deal of confusion around the exact details of Cameron’s opt-in proposals; the idea that filters should be available at network level has been accepted by ISPs for some time. What has been in contention in the last few months is whether networks should have those filters by default, with those wanting to receive porn forced to over-ride them, as Cameron is now insisting.
Under the plans announced last week, anyone installing broadband for the first time would be confronted by a screen asking them if they wanted anti-porn filters; controversially, the Yes box would be pre-ticked, meaning those who failed to engage in the process could easily click on the “Next” box without understanding what they had done.
“The likelihood is lots of people who don’t need filters will have them enabled; it’s kind of sleepwalking into censorship and, as that happens, it will become harder for websites to reach audiences,” says Killock.
On an individual level, having to make a choice about whether a household should be able to access porn could be embarrassing, particularly in a flatshare or in a family where one partner uses such sites and the other doesn’t.
But there are issues too about who would decide what constitutes pornography and how. Some hardcore sites may be easy to rule on, but what about those which peddle softer images of scantily-dressed women in sexual positions or which straddle the line between pornography and art?
Would Fifty Shades Of Grey fall foul of the filters or images of a grinding Rihanna? And what about sites such as Flickr and Tumblr which – while not porn sites – may have porn on them?
Even if a consensus on what constitutes pornography could be reached, would it be possible to devise algorithms sophisticated enough to screen out “inappropriate” sites but leave those providing sex education information accessible to teenagers concerned about their social and emotional development?
Boynton is worried filters might make it more difficult for teenagers troubled about their sexuality to access support. “If, for example, you’re a young gay man looking for information on young gays, you can see that might trigger because it sounds like it could be dodgy, but he could be looking for a self-help group or phoneline,” she says.
There are also fears the filters would soon be used to screen out other sites such as those linked with “extremist” views, self-harm, suicide or even just an “unhealthy lifestyle”.
“Pornography is always the canary in the coal mine when it comes to freedom of speech, it’s always the first thing to die,” says Myles Jackman, a lawyer who specialises in extreme pornography and obscenity cases.
“We have already heard Cameron on the Jeremy Vine show conflating pornography with images of self-harm so I would imagine there will be other freedom of speech issues to follow.”
Jackman believes that far from being about protecting children, the opt-in proposal is a diversionary tactic. “The concern of parents [about access to pornography] may well be justified, however, the way to deal with it is to provide accurate information and education – not create a moral panic,” he says.
“But this is not about enlightenment, it’s about scaremongering and my suggestion is that we are in the middle of a really bad economic period and this is a cheap and effective way of misdirecting people from the really important political issues.”
According to experts, not only will the filters not guarantee teenagers protection (they won’t apply to mobile phones which is how most youngsters access the internet, and many will know how to get round them using proxy sites anyway), the illusion their children are now safe may discourage parents from engaging them in discussions about healthy relationships. And, says Boynton, all the focus on pornography, may distract attention away from other pernicious influences such as peer pressure and mainstream media.
While children’s charities, including the NSPCC, may have campaigned for network filtering, most believe the best way to counter the corrosive impact of legal pornography is to educate children and parents on internet safety issues and foster good relationships.
“The positive aspect of Cameron’s announcement is that it raises awareness and shows there’s a commitment at a high level to try to do something,” says Houston of Children 1st. “I guess we’d give it a guarded welcome, although we’d have to see how it worked in practice – anyone with a firewall at work knows it can prevent you accessing sites you need to use.
“But, I don’t think technology is the answer to the issue – it is people and relationships; it is about parents making the effort to gen up and be with their children on the internet from a very young age, so they can talk about the potential risks.
“It’s about giving them a clear message: ‘I will help you protect yourself’. But it’s also about talking to them about sex and relationships so that when they become more independent, they already have a sense of what’s healthy. Then, if they do come across pornography, it will be more in perspective.”
Delivering his speech, Cameron was assertive, telling search engines: “If there are technical obstacles to acting on this, don’t just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them.”
But last week, even he seemed to be taking a step back, saying “soft porn” images such as the Sun’s Page 3 were unlikely to be filtered out and conceding there may be problems further down the line.
Meanwhile, the ongoing support of the Daily Mail – which Cameron specifically referenced in his speech – is doing nothing to counter the notion that his proposals are part of a wider moral crusade. “I think a lot of this has do to with a personal distaste for certain sites,” says Killock.
“The government knows it can’t ban them, but it can, in one swift move get people to ban them for themselves just by not thinking properly.
“There’s dog-whistle politics going on. Some people might read the proposals as a move to protect children, but really it’s about trying to make accessing certain types of material socially unacceptable.” «