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19 June 2013

No. 10’s Potemkin summit on internet porn solved nothing

Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the Internet Watch Foundation?

By Rafael Behr

The “Downing Street summit” is a trusty device to bump some minor item a couple of points up the news agenda. The Prime Minister doesn’’t even need to be present, as indeed he wasn’’t when Maria Miller gathered corporate internet Titans in No. 10 to declare collective horror at child pornography. 
 
It turns out the simple fact of the conversation taking place within those hallowed walls is sufficient to spur action. But what action? The assembled bigwigs – including representatives from internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies, search engines and social networking sites – pledged to boost the funds and powers available to the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry’s self-regulatory body, to track down and block child porn. Agreeing to do a tiny bit more is unmistakably better than agreeing to do less. So well done Big Internet for disapproving of vile criminality! 
 
Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the IWF (spread over four years)? And will that sum, multiples of which are routinely misplaced in the margins of Google’’s UK tax returns, do anything much at all to protect children from predatory paedophiles? The answer, each time, is surely “no”. But it has helped boost Maria Miller’’s profile at a time when the Prime Minister is known to be mulling a ministerial reshuffle. There is no doubt Miller is feeling embattled. Comments she made ahead of the summit, noting her own status as the only mother in the cabinet, have been interpreted –not exactly favourably as an attempt to secure her position. She has even had to defend  the very existence of her department from the whispered suggestion it might usefully be scrapped altogether. (When Steve Hilton was still firing off wild strategy ideas in No10 he notoriously wondered aloud if the DCMS might be downsized to a roomful of people and a website.) Miller’’s friends suspect a concerted briefing campaign to get rid of her, with a steady flow of unhelpful items turning up in newspapers and political columns. 
 
It doesn’’t take a tremendous leap of the imagination to suppose that a beleaguered minister might see some presentational advantage in striding purposefully along Downing St. as the scourge of child pornography.  Yet there is something a little dismal about the whole spectacle. Much reporting of the summit conflated two separate issues: access to illegal images of children –and children’s’ access to entirely legal sexual images. It is pretty easy to get outraged about the former and to demand a crackdown; the latter appears not to have been addressed at all. What many campaigners really want  – and what ISPs resist– is a tougher regime of default filtering that means, in theory, children can’’t accidentally find themselves looking at the bad bits of the web. (Whether or not this is a good idea in theory or can even be done in practice is more complicated than it sounds– I wrote about it at some length earlier this year.) 
 
The volume and nature of readily available and entirely legal sexual images online –-  increasingly user-generated  –  is a source of massive anxiety to many parents. It is also complex issue in terms of carving out jurisdiction and apportioning responsibility for policing. It merges with the wider debate, no less tricky, about the social consequences of a more generally sexualised culture. Education is likely to play as important a part in the answer as filtering and blocking. Separately, every rational person can agree that illegal paedophile material needs to be expunged. The two problems are more distinct than is often implied in reporting. Meanwhile, neither came remotely close to being solved by yesterday’’s Potemkin summit. 
 
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