Leaders: Tackling online porn

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THE world wide web has changed our lives forever, and in many ways greatly for the better.

We can shop online, watch entertainment online, and communicate instantly with friends across the globe through social media. It is impossible to imagine the world without the internet.

Yet, there is a dark and deeply troubling side to the web. The very unshackled freedom of expression and communication – the revolutionary, even noble, principles on which it was founded – has allowed a despicable underworld of sickening pornography and violent depravity to grow up virtually unregulated.

Those who take an extreme libertarian view would say that this downside of the web, while unpleasant, is a price worth paying for the enormous freedoms the internet brings all of us. However, such an argument cannot be sustained when viewed in the light of heinous murder cases, including, most recently, that of schoolgirl April Jones. Police officers found that Mark Bridger, who murdered five-year-old April, had numerous indecent images on his computer He had also views violent sexual scenes. There is a pattern here. Stuart Hazell, who killed 12-year-old Tia Sharp, regularly downloaded child abuse images on his mobile phone. And such cases do not only involve children. Jane Longhurst was 31 when she was murdered by extreme-pornography obsessive Graham Coutts.

Yesterday, Jane’s mother Liz, speaking in the wake of Bridger’s conviction, identified the availability of violent hard-core pornography online as something that contributes to the mindset and, therefore, the actions of men like Bridger, Hazell and Coutts. Mrs Longhurst was clear what must be done. Companies such as Google have to “get their act together” to tackle the problem. Her views were echoed by Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, who said vile images were still too easily available online.

In its defence, Google says it has a “zero-tolerance policy on child sexual abuse content”. It helps fund the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), an independent body that searches the web for child abuse imagery. It sends links it finds to Google, which are removed from its search index.

Such a stance is commendable, but does not go far enough. Google has not, for example, made its “safe search” mode, which blocks access to pornography sites, a default setting. This, and its reliance on the IWF, gives the impression it is being reactive rather than proactive over pornography, which a succession of judges have said does contribute to the behaviour of men like Bridger.

It is wrong, of course, to focus just on Google. Other internet service providers are equally culpable. However, as one of the most successful search engines in the world, Google must, as John Carr – a UK government adviser on online child safety – said show “moral leadership”. Where Google leads, others will follow.

Tories guilty of short-term thinking

Anyone remember subsidiarity? The idea was much debated in the 1990s when John Major was having trouble persuading his recalcitrant back-benchers to support the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1993. To assuage fears over European Union power, the principle of subsidiarity – that action should be taken at national level, unless there were compelling reasons for the EU to act – was adopted.

Then came the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. In it contained a “yellow card” system allowing national parliaments to object to EU proposals if they believed they did not comply with subsidiarity.

So to the present day when another Tory Prime Minister is having trouble persuading his recalcitrant back-benchers not just of the benefits of Europe but of the idea of the UK being in the EU at all. So, up pops Foreign Secretary William Hague to suggest a “red card” system to “give national parliaments the right to block legislation that need not be agreed at the European level”. The EU has great benefits. It can help to crack down on multinational corporate tax evasion, for example. But it often appears to poke its bureaucratic nose into aspects of our national life in which it has no business.

So, Mr Hague’s suggestion has merit. The problem is the Tory part of the coalition, with its militant anti-EU MPs and its move to the right to cope with the rise of Ukip, has little credibility in Europe. The chances of the red card system being adopted are, therefore, slim. It is Mr Hague and Mr Cameron that should be shown the yellow card – a warning that trimming for short-term domestic political ends is not the way to win friends and influence governments in Europe.