David Cameron’s King Canute moment
22 Jul 2013


The Prime Minister’s touching belief that he can clean up the web with technology is misguided and even dangerous, says Padraig Reidy

Announcing plans to clean up the internet on Monday morning, David Cameron invoked King Canute, saying he had been warned “You can as easily legislate what happens on the Internet as you can legislate the tides.”

The story of Canute and the sea is that the king wanted to demonstrate his own fallability to fawning fans. But David Cameron today seems to want to tell the world that he can actually eliminate everything that’s bad from the web. Hence we had “rape porn”, child abuse images, extreme pornography and the issue of what children view online all lumped together in the one speech. All will be solved, and soon, through the miracle of technology.

Cameron points out that “the Internet is not a sideline to ‘real life’ or an escape from ‘real life’; it is real life.” In this much he’s right. But he then goes on to discuss the challenge of child abuse and rape images in almost entirely technological terms.

I’ve written before about the cyber-utopianism inherent in the arguments of many who are pro filtering and blocking: there is an absolute faith in the ability of technology to tackle deep moral and ethical issues; witness Cameron’s imploring today, telling ISPs to “set their greatest minds” to creating perfect filters. Not philosophers, mind, but programmers.

Thus, as with so many discussions on the web, the idea that if something is technologically possible, then there is no reason not to do it, prevails. It’s simply a matter of writing the right code rather than thinking about the real implications of what one is doing. This was the same thinking that led to Cameron’s suggestion of curbs on social media during the riots of 2011.

The Prime Minister announced that, among other things, internet service providers will be forced to provide default filters blocking sites. This is a problem both on a theoretical and practical level; theoretically as it sets up a censored web as a standard, and practically because filters are imperfect, and block much more than they are intended to. Meanwhile, tech-savvy teenagers may well be able to circumvent them, meaning parents are left with a false sense of security.

The element of choice and here is key; parents should actively choose a filter, knowing what that entails, rather than passively accepting, as currently proposed by the Prime Minister. Engaging with that initial thought about what is viewed in your house could lead to greater engagement and discussion about children’s web use – which is the best way to protect them.

It is proposed that a blacklist of search terms be created. As Open Rights Group points out, it will simply mean new terms will be thought up, resulting in an endless cat and mouse game, and also a threat of legitimate content being blocked. What about, say, academic studies into porn? Or violence against women? Or, say, essays on Nabokov’s Lolita?

Again, there is far too much faith in the algorithm, and far too little thinking about the core issue: tracking down and prosecuting the creators of abuse images. The one solid proposal on this front is the creation of a central secure database of illegal images from which police can work, though the prime minister’s suggestion that it will “enable the industry to use the digital hash tags from the database” does not fill one with confidence that he is entirely across this issue.
The vast majority of trade in abuse images comes on darknets and through criminal networks, not through simple browser searches. This is fairly easily proved when one, to use the Prime Minister’s example, searches for “child sex” on Google. Unsurprisingly, one is not immediately bombarded with page after page of illegal child abuse images.

As Daily Telegraph tech blogger Mic Wright writes: “The unpleasant fact is that the majority of child sexual abuse online is perpetrated beyond even the all-seeing eye of Google.”

The impulses to get rid of images of abuse, and shield children from pornography, are not bad ones. But to imagine that this can be done solely by algorithms creating filters, blacklists and blocking, rather than solid support for police work on abuse images, and proper, engaged debate on the moral and ethical issues of what we and our children can and cannot view online, really is like imagining one can command the tides.

Padraig Reidy

3 responses to “David Cameron’s King Canute moment”

  1. John says:

    Germany, France, Spain and other EU countries have a very relaxed attitude to Porn. There are very few restrictions in the adult shops in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris. Why can’t the UK have the same laws? Cameron has said that what you can’t obtain in UK adult shops you won’t be able to get online. The adult shops in the UK are quite restrictive on some things like fetish and bondage. So if you search for such things which you can’t obtain in a UK adult shop, what will this mean? A criminal record? For something that is legal in the rest of the EU? What about human rights?

  2. I’m not convinced Cameron has ‘absolute faith’ in anything whatsoever. ‘Active choice’ hasn’t been around long enough for much to be concluded about its effects; nevertheless, Cameron has now found a new amour. Come next Summer he’ll probably have some other, younger, shapelier filtering scheme hanging on his arm.

  3. Gonzo says:

    Sadly this is a classic case of Politician’s logic – something must be done, here is something that a vociferous press are calling for, lets do it.

    In fact, as you correctly point out, this is worse than doing nothing for a variety of reasons.

    Not only will it certainly block content that would be helpful to confused or troubled teens, it will divert funding and resources away from other areas in an attempt to be seen to be doing something.

    The parents who raise their children well will continue to do so without needing such ‘assistance’. The lazy or incompetent ones will be able to feel better about themselves whilst doing nothing, until they discover that little Johnny has found a way round it (friend’s house or older brother’s mobile?) and is unable to process what he has seen because he is unable to talk to his parents about difficult things.

    If the purpose of this scheme is to protect children (and I am far from convinced that is even the reason for its introduction, let alone the likely outcome), then DC would be better advised to consider one or all of the following:

    1. Proper sexual education in school, of exactly the type The Daily Mail would faint over. Give children the language and knowledge to know when something is wrong and how to deal with it. The sad fact is that most abuse (and indeed most images of abuse) occurs within the family, the very gold standard that Cameron claims to be protecting.

    2. Encourage a proper debate about the role of media in our society. Maybe even just once stand up to the hypocritical ‘bastions of decency’ like the Daily Mail and let them know that printing creepshots of celebrities as objects to be discussed and judged adds nothing positive to our society

    3. Encourage parents to take some responsibility for their children and build a relationship with them where things can be discussed and resolved. Kids who are given the tools and the confidence to deal with difficult things will, surprise surprise, deal better with difficult things when they arise (and they will).

    4. Base policy on well researched, evidence led expertise, not on issue led lobby groups or ‘celebrity victims’. Parents of murdered children deserve our greatest sympathy and support, but their trauma does not make them rational experts on the best way to improve the whole of society. they way they are often used as ‘figureheads’ for media driven narratives is nothing short of further abuse, and the Government should play no part in it.

    I am sure there are any number of other measures that could be considered, discussed and trialled before careful implementation. We could even, for once, lose some of our Great British arrogance and look at how some of our European neighbours seem to manage to deal with similar issues with less of the Victorian fire and brimstone, and arguably better outcomes.

    Apologies for a rather long post, but sometimes I just despair….