Comment: Cameron's porn policy might make a good headline but it won't actually work

Jane Fae: 'This applies a very large sledgehammer to an issue that many believe requires a far more delicate touch'
Jane Fae: 'This applies a very large sledgehammer to an issue that many believe requires a far more delicate touch'

By Jane Fae

Was your access to a cultural event in Glasgow denied?  Are you a gay schoolchild unable to obtain confidential help and advice about coming out? Was the perfectly innocuous rainbow t-shirt you were selling on Ebay barred because the word 'gay' is not suitable for a family site?

You're just the latest person to discover the joys of filtering software.

I wouldn't want to rain on David Cameron’s parade – not on the very day when he's doing the rounds of radio studios, chest puffed out, pleased as punch that he's finally doing SOMETHING about online badness – but maybe about now is when you should be getting your umbrellas out.

Today's announcement, combining new money that actually had more or less been promised months ago for the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), and new moves by the likes of Google and Microsoft to make it supposedly harder to 'find' child abuse material on the internet, may sound like it's a line drawn. 

In fact its little more than an opening gambit, a first move, the raising of the lid on a Pandora's box that will likely return to haunt politicians: strong on headlines, short on engagement with the detail.

Let's not rehash old ground, other than to remind ourselves of the difficulties with the government view that all that needs to be done is to call the big internet providers to heel, like naughty children or badly-behaved mutts: threaten regulation unless and until they promise to behave, and then retire, job done.

For starters, there is the culture problem which, with every initiative, seems to be more and more wilfully ignored by government.  The majority of filters and filter providers being called on to assist the government in its safeguarding activities are US in origin and ownership. That means a subtly different take on sex, on sexuality and violence, with Facebook standing out, so far, as a shining example of an organisation that has historically had little problem with broadcasting images of violence against women, while simultaneously having a fit of vapours over breastfeeding and artistic nakedness.

If that's an issue when it comes to sex, how much more an issue in respect of sexuality, where the US view on gay and transgender rights is – how can I put this – not always, everywhere, quite as liberal as that in the UK. Writing for the LGBT press, I am increasingly aware of difficulties that individuals have had in public spaces in accessing the most ordinary of non-sexual LGBT websites. That Glasgow cultural event?  GlasGay!

The eBay ruling?  Oh, just last week, when clunking managers decided that 'gay interest' meant, obviously, porn, and – just in time for Xmas - banned a rainbow Rudolph t-shirt.

I am now hearing about blocks on access to educational material for school children on an almost daily basis, meaning that children scared to come out to their parents are likely to find themselves ever more isolated in a household where parental controls have been put in place.

Although it's all perfectly legit, all above board, and whenever such blocks are found to be happening, the big organisational response is always an excuse, occasionally an apology and mostly the claim that it was oversight and it won't happen again.

Then there’s the over-blocking, or mis-blocking, issue. So far, we haven't accidentally banned transport companies or dentists (as happened in, respectively, the Netherlands and Australia).  But the chances of weirdness resulting from a comprehensive block list are growing stronger by the day.

As already noted, Google SafeSearch - which is the level that is now automatically operational in shopping centres and other public places and approximately the level that Google deems safe for children - will block, inter alia, 'cock', 'pussy' and 'shemale'.  That is unfortunate, given that the first two terms, in the UK, are far more likely to be used in legitimate nursery rhyme and biological contexts than in the US. And 'shemale', a sexualised term in the UK, is a legit word for transgender in some English-speaking countries.

The real problem lies in how, despite the fact that politicians keep holding up the IWF as model of good practice, the government doesn't seem to have worked out what makes it so good.  For starters it is a Rolls Royce service: pretty much every site blocked has been assessed, individually, by a trained assessor.

That's what the extra cash promised today is for: more assessors.  But that means that the assessment is not made in broad generic terms, or based on blocking specific phrases, or a calculation of the proportion of skin tone in an image, as with commercial blocking packages. The IWF is also well aware of this and has answered four key criticisms of what it does.

First, the blocklist that it provides to ISP's, through the medium of Cleanfeed is a unique source of potentially unlawful material. Once other entities enter the fray, that is no longer quite the case.

They may overblock.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the earliest block lists, of newsgroups condemned by the Met Vice Unit in 1996, included alt.homosexual as a group that needed stamping out.

Perversely, filtering through search engines may engender a false sense of security: even, perhaps, create new defences. Because if you search the internet and you now find certain abusive material, your defence, surely, must be that you believed the net purged of this sort of thing.

Second, and already subject of debate in respect of the IWF's activities, is the threat to free expression from 'silent filtering'.  The use of Cleanfeed means you never quite know when you have been blocked.  That problem is now about to be multiplied one hundred fold, so in future, you can never quite be sure whether the (legitimate) material you want is out there, but hidden from sight, or not out there at all.

Closely linked to the above is the issue of unblocking.  As legal advice on the blocking of LGBT sites suggests - where you are blocked, you may have recourse to the law for compensation. Where blocking specifically targets a particular minority, this could constitute discrimination.

Last but by no means least is the question of review.  While there are many reasons for not throwing block lists open to the general public, there should be mechanisms in place to check that blocks are not capricious or discriminatory. Again, in the case of the IWF, a single central list maintained by a quasi-public body may be subject to oversight and this is precisely what they have agreed to put in place.

Not so the independent filterers and blockers, who jealously hide the content of their lists behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality, making it even less likely that the public at large can find out what it is they are blocking.


In short, today's initiative is a start, not an end. It applies a very large sledgehammer to an issue that many believe requires a far more delicate touch: or even, according to former head of the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre Jim Gamble, the wrong issue entirely.  And by bringing on that sledgehammer without so much as a thought for collateral damage to civil liberties and public trust in the end system, it may actually begin the process of undermining confidence in child protection that has been built up over the last decade.

Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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