From time to time an issue comes along in politics that ought to unite everyone at any point on the political spectrum.  Surely no-one can disagree that children need to be protected from pornography?

So why have the announcements by the Prime Minister that by the end of next year millions of households will be contacted by their internet providers and told they must decide whether to activate “family friendly filters” to restrict adult material, been subject to such a lukewarm reception

It seems to me there are a number of issues that are getting confused and conflated, by the unedifying spectacle of politicians attempting to comment on technical matters.  One of the first concerns the definition of the problem the legislation – and accompanying technological framework – is intended to tackle.  This means talking about some difficult and unpleasant subjects, and this article is not subject to any ubiquitous filters at present, so I shall choose my words as best I can.

Child pornography – images and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children – is one problem.  Children accessing other forms of pornography – that might depict anything at all from consenting adults having fun across a vast spectrum of more coercive and lets say ‘niche interest’ activities, is another.

With regard to the former, nobody could possibly argue that steps need to be taken to protect children from predatory abuse.  Every time a paedophile is arrested and brought to justice, they are inevitably found to possess hard-drives full of horrific images.  Not only does the existence of pornographic images of children indicate a child has been abused in their creation, every one helps to normalize and desensitize people who find this arousing and makes it more likely for them to seek beyond the images themselves.

But where do these images get found? I have no idea, except to say that the people involved – whatever else is going on in their minds – must surely be aware that what they are doing is incredibly illegal and dangerous.  I cannot believe that they are starting with Google image search or Youtube.  Everyone knows that every search is tracked, every cookie queried, and you would be as likely to put ‘where can I buy heroin in (my town)’ into the search bar.

Of course it’s all there on t’internet, but all will be found in the unindexed backwaters of the ‘dark’ web.  And in the event that a search does involve one of the words to be blacklisted by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency (CEOP), is a warning pop-up from Google really likely to make them reconsider their deviancy and seek psychiatric assistance? I fear not.

I know that some members of the criminal fraternity are smarter than others, but those who tend to remain at liberty must surely have other ways of procuring illegal items, than popping key words into a search engine. I cannot help but wonder whether it would be better to increase funding for policing of the criminals responsible for the production and distribution of images of child abuse, and to crack down on the methods used to pay for them – than to approach it at the keyword blocking level? If CEOP  identified 50,000 cases of British residents accessing child abuse online in 2012, why were only around 2,000 were pursued legally? (as stated last week by shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper).

Unfortunately the second issue, of children being exposed to pornographic imagery inappropriately, feels even more like a case of too little too late.  Twenty years after its inception, the internet is a vast unregulated wilderness that no political will is going to control at this point – not in a western democracy, anyway, though it may come as no great surprise that it’s the Chinese firm Huawei’s software that is behind the filtering service employed at TalkTalk, the isp held up as David Cameron’s shining example of responsible internet provision

The sexualisation of society and every image therein is a far broader one in any case, and needs to be tackled much more consistently and holistically  if there is to be any possibility of reversing trends that appall parents of every political persuasion.

Unfortunately politicians making unworkable pronouncements about technology they don’t begin to understand will not solve the problem.  Shutting down Blackberry messenger would not have stopped the 2011 riots in their tracks, IP blocking simply does not work (how many expats in Spain watch UK TV daily via a proxy server?)  Filters are known to block out things that needn’t be blocked – I remember when a friend was unable to access her own school’s website, from within the school whilst teaching there due to three of the letters contained in the school’s address within the County of Sussex.  And they also fail to block the things they should, including text as image files, misleading metadata, or files simply pretending to be things they are not (if this were not the case, viruses and malware would have a much harder time propagating than they do)

The ONLY thing that will truly keep our kids safer online is parental supervision and guidance, and the kind of education – within homes, schools and society as a whole – that teaches our children right from wrong, self respect and respect for others, a context for sexuality and different kinds of behavior and a framework for what is OK and what is not.  Encouraging a belief that this education can be delegated to a piece of software is dangerous and damaging on so many different levels.  If you agree there is an e-petition here

Next week, we return you to your usual diet of app reviews and techy how-tos. But every now and again this column needs to get a bit more topical.

Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, August 2nd 2013

©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL


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