David Cameron has a porn problem

'All the ISPs have rewired their technology' - er, what?

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Here are two stories about the government's attitude towards internet porn.

Story one: David Cameron announces default filtering of adult content and tells search engines to censor their results: "You have a duty to act on this - and it is a moral duty. If there are technical obstacles... don't just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them."

Story two: David Cameron's government cut the budget of online safety watchdog CEOP by 10 per cent, a cut that is already affecting its outreach programmes that help educate children about online dangers. "We can't send officers into schools any more to do talks," one CEOP board member told the BBC.

Cameron's "war" on porn is a new moral panic to keep the Daily Mail happy over the summer holidays - and so much cheaper than, say, giving CEOP its budget back.

Won't someone think of the headlines?

We've written about porn filtering before, exposing the flaws. There's the danger of mission creep, where filters set up to block one kind of content are then demanded for others (hate speech, terrorism, suicide sites, pro-anorexia sites and so on).

There's the potential to have a database of people who've opted in to view adult content used against those people (imagine the fun divorce lawyers could have with that one). And there's the fundamental problem that some other parents are irresponsible and will let their kids access unfiltered content, making the whole exercise irrelevant anyway.

It's important to stress here that we're not just talking about the filtering of illegal content. We're talking about filtering legal content too. As Paul Bernal points out, that raises lots of worrying issues: who decides what to filter? What criteria will apply? What happens to the records of opt-ins? Will the filtering include Facebook?

A phony war

There is another concern. Does David Cameron have the slightest idea of what he's talking about? "All the ISPs have rewired their technology," he says, adding that search engines will block specific terms - because of course, once they do that there's no chance at all that people will use different words instead.

Cameron might not know how the internet works, but the Open Rights Group does - and it's worried about the big picture, especially search engine censorship:

"It is embarrassing for our Prime Minister to stand up and demand a policy that is likely to be of highly marginal impact, and discuss it as if it was of vital national interest, while failing to concentrate on the real answers... these announcements risk being another case of blaming the commercial intermediaries - in this case, search engines - because that is easier and cheaper than doing what is really necessary."

Cameron's plans are dangerous and frighteningly naive, of course, but that doesn't matter: declaring "war on internet pornography" generates headlines, doesn't cost any money and when it fails, the failure can be blamed on the ISPs and search engines. David Cameron used to be a PR man. He clearly hasn't lost his touch.