10 questions about Cameron’s 'war on porn'

Including, who decides what counts as 'pornography', what happens when people 'opt-in' and what about page 3?

There’s been a bit of a media onslaught from David Cameron about his 'war on porn' over the weekend. Some of the messages given out have been very welcome – but some are contradictory and others make very little sense when examined closely. The latest pronouncement, as presented to/by the BBC, says "Online pornography to be blocked automatically, PM announces".

The overall thrust seem to be that, as Cameron is going to put in a speech: "Every household in the UK is to have pornography blocked by their internet provider unless they choose to receive it."

So is this the 'opt-in to porn' idea that the government has been pushing for the last couple of years? The BBC page seems to suggest so. It suggests that all new customers to ISPs will have their 'porn-filters' turned on by default, so will have to actively choose to turn them off – "and that millions of existing computer users will be contacted by their internet providers and told they must decide whether to activate filters".

Some of this is welcome – the statement about making it a criminal offence to possess images depicting rape, for example, sounds a good idea on the face of it. Such material is deeply offensive, though quite where it would leave anyone who owns a DVD of Jody Foster being raped in The Accused doesn’t appear to be clear. Indeed, that is the first of my ten questions for David Cameron.

1     Who will decide what counts as 'pornography' and how?

And not just pornography, but images depicting rape? Will this be done automatically, or will there be some kind of 'porn board' of people who will scour the internet for images and decide what is 'OK' and what isn’t? Automatic systems already exist to do this for child abuse images, and by most accounts they work reasonably well, but they haven’t eradicated the problem of child abuse images. Far from it. If it’s going to be a 'human' system – perhaps an extension of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) – how are you planning to fund it, and do you have any idea how much this is going to cost?

2     Do you understand and acknowledge the difference between pornography, child abuse images and images depicting rape? 

One of the greatest sources of confusion over the various messages given out over the weekend has been the mismatch between headlines, sound bites, and actual proposals (such as they exist) over what you’re actually talking about. Child abuse images are already illegal pretty much everywhere on the planet – and are hunted down and policed as such. As Google’s spokespeople say, Google already has a zero-tolerance policy for those images, and has done for a while. Images depicting rape are another category, and the idea of making it illegal to possess them would be a significant step – but what about 'pornography'. Currently, pornography is legal – but it comes in many forms, and is generally legal – and too many people have very little to do with either of the first two categories…. which brings me to the third question

3     Are you planning to make all pornography illegal?

…because that seems to be the logical extension of the idea that the essential position should be that 'pornography' should be blocked as standard. That, of course, brings up the first two questions again. Who’s going to make the decisions, and on what basis? Further to that, who’s going to 'watch the watchmen'? The Internet Watch Foundation, that currently 'polices' child abuse images, though an admirable body in many ways, is far from a model of transparency (see this excellent article by my colleague Emily Laidlaw). If a body is to have sweeping powers to control content – powers above and beyond those set out in law – that body needs to be accountable and their operations transparent. How are you planning to do that?

4     What about Page 3?

I assume you’re not considering banning this. If you want to be logically consistent – and, indeed, if you want to stop the "corrosion of childhood", then doing something about Page 3 would seem to make much more sense. Given the new seriousness of your attitude, I assume you don’t subscribe to the view that Page 3 is just 'harmless fun', but perhaps you do. Where is your line drawn? What would Mr Murdoch say?

5     What else do you want to censor?

…and I use the word 'censor' advisedly, because this is censorship, unless you confine it to material that is illegal. As I have said, child abuse images are already illegal, and the extension to images depicting rape is a welcome idea, so long as the definitions can be made to work (which may be very difficult). Deciding to censor pornography is one step – but what next? Censoring material depicting violence? 'Glorifying' terrorism etc?  Anything linking to 'illegal content' like material in breach of copyright? It’s a very slippery slope towards censoring pretty much anything you don’t like, whether it be for political purposes or otherwise. 'Function creep' is a recognised phenomenon in this area, and one that’s very difficult to guard against. What you design and build for one purpose can easily end up being used for quite another, which brings me to another question…

6     What happens when people 'opt-in'?

In particular, what kind of records will be kept? Will there be a 'list' of those people who have 'opted-in to porn'? Actually, scratch that part of the question – because there will, automatically, be a list of those people who have opted-in. That’s how the digital world works – perhaps not a single list, but a set of lists that can be complied into a complete list. The real question is what are you planning to do with that list. Will it be considered a list of people who are 'untrustworthy'. Will the police have immediate access to it at all times? How will the list be kept secure? Will it become available to others? How about GCHQ? The NSA? Have the opportunities for the misuse of such a list been considered? Function creep applies here as well – and it’s equally difficult to guard against.

7     What was that letter to the ISPs about?

You know, the letter that got leaked, asking the ISPs to keep doing what they were already doing, but allow you to say that this was a great new initiative? Are you really 'at war' with the ISPs? Or does the letter reveal that this initiative of yours is essentially a PR exercise, aimed at saying that you’re doing something when in reality you’re not? Conversely, have you been talking to the ISPs in any detail? Do you have their agreement over much of this? Or are you going to try to 'strong-arm' them into cooperating with you in a plan that they think won’t work and will cost a great deal of money, time and effort? For a plan like this to work, you need to work closely with them, not fight against them.

8     Are you going to get the ISPs to block Facebook?

I have been wondering about this for a while because Facebook regularly includes images and pages that would fit within your apparent definitions, particularly as regards violence against women, and Facebook show no signs of removing them. The most they’ve done is remove advertisements from these kinds of pages – so anyone who accesses Facebook will have access to this material. Will the default be for Facebook to be blocked? Or do you imagine you’re going to convince Facebook to change their policy? If you do, I fear you don’t understand the strength of the First Amendment lobby in the US... which brings me to another question

9     How do you think your plans will go down with US internet companies?

All I’ve seen from Google have been some pretty stony-faced comments but for your plan to work you need to be able to get US companies to comply. Few will do so easily and willingly, partly on principle (the First Amendment really matters to most Americans), partly because it will cost them money to do so, and partly because it will thoroughly piss-off many of their US customers. So how do you plan to get them to comply? I assume you do have a plan…

10     Do you really think these plans will stop the 'corrosion' of childhood?

That’s my biggest question. As I’ve blogged before, I suspect this whole thing misses the point. It perpetuates a myth that you can make the internet a 'safe' place, and absolves parents of the real responsibility they have for helping their kids to grow up as savvy, wary and discerning internet users. It creates a straw man – the corrosion of childhood, such as it exists, comes from a much broader societal problem than internet porn, and if you focus only on internet porn, you can miss all the rest.

Plans like these, worthy though they may appear, do not, to me, seem likely to be in any way effective – the real 'bad guys' will find ways around them, the material will still exist, will keep being created, and we’ll pretend to have solved the problem – and at the same time put in a structure to allow censorship, create a deeply vulnerable database of 'untrustworthy people' and potentially alienate many of the most important companies on the internet. I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. To say the least.

Paul Bernal is a lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School

This post originally appeared on his blog

David Cameron answers a question during a joint news conference with Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta in 10 Downing Street on July 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Bernal is a lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496