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
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.