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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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.