Wanting to protect children from online porn has nothing to do with social conservatism

Too many people have fallen for the myth that any attempt to control the internet is bad.

To people of a certain age the word “pornography” conjures up images of Playboy centrefolds. However, a great deal of porn now easily accessible on the internet is about as close to a Playboy centrefold as Famous Five stories are to War and Peace.

I have a vivid memory of the mother of a 10-year-old girl who approached me after a school’s parents’ evening. She became quite upset as she described the nature of a video she had found her daughter watching. The child’s friend had sent a link. I am not going to provide the same level of details about what was going on - let’s just say it appeared to involve one woman, three adult males and a range of electro mechanical devices. The focus of attention at the denouement was the woman’s mouth and face. Mum’s tearful question to me was "how do you explain that to a young girl who has still not had her first kiss?".

Even now I am not sure how I would approach such a challenge but what is truly outrageous is that this mother had to confront it at all. Yet if you deconstruct the monotonous, never changing outpourings of a collection of so-called free speech campaigners at root it was really Mum’s fault. She had failed to learn about, understand and act upon the need to install filters that might have prevented any porn reaching the child’s screen. She had failed to find a way to convince her daughter not to click on such links or maybe the feckless parent was simply providing an inadequate degree of supervision of her child’s online behaviour.

The kind of stuff this 10-year-old child saw was never intended to be viewed by children. It may be illegal anyway as some would never receive a BBFC classification for public display, or possibly even an R18 which would allow it to be sold in licensed sex shops.

Yet it is found on the homepages of websites where anyone and everyone can see it, whether by accident or design. It is usually presented as a “teaser” to get you to pay for other material which is “even better”. 

There is simply no question that the practice I have just described is illegal in the UK. In R v Perrin in 2002 the Court of Appeal said gross pornographic material must be put behind a barrier of some kind, eg a paywall, so as to ensure only adults who positively want to see it can do so. Yet we’ve got millions of webpages where that just does not happen and search engines provide immediate access for all UK residents.

The problem, of course, is that the images are published from overseas. In recent years the police have shown little enough interest in prosecuting UK residents under the Obscene Publications Act and as far I know they have never made any effort to extradite anyone for such offences. It is usually at this point people throw up their hands and say it is all too complicated, nothing can be done or that the price of doing anything would present intolerable challenges to adults’ rights. That is self-serving codswallop: look how the gambling industry has effectively eliminated kids from their sites.

Much of the evidence cited to “prove” porn does no harm predates the immersive internet and did not involve a study of its longer-term effects on children. Thus I am astonished that more people are not willing to accept that the point at least is moot. That being so shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Shouldn’t the search engines, for example, not return links to sites that do not attempt to restrict children’s access? Should the banks and the credit card companies refuse to process payments to such sites?

Ultimately the question turns on how highly we value our children and what risks we are willing to take with their futures. It has nothing to do with social conservatism or moral panics. We need to call a halt to this rash experiment. If adults want to watch porn that’s their business, not mine. But we really out to be able to do more for our kids. The UK’s internet service providers have said they are going to do more in this direction. We shall see. Yes, there may be privacy concerns for the rest of us, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Too many people who ought to know better have fallen for the heavily-promoted, convenient West Coast money-spinning myth that all attempts to control content on the internet are bad and will lead swiftly but inevitably to perdition. Iran does it so it must be bad. That’s the beginning and end of their argument. It won’t do.

Shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Photograph: Getty Images
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear