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Porn, the UK and Search Engines' 'Moral Duty'

By David Vranicar
Aug 3, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Britain's crusade against online pornography has ramped up. Prime Minister David Cameron recently gave a speech saying the pornography was "corroding childhood" and declared that every household in the UK should have pornography blocked by Internet service providers -- unless, that is, the homeowners specifically opt in to pornographic content, which seems like it could make for some awkward dinnertime discussions.

Porn, the UK and Search Engines' 'Moral Duty'

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, we welcome in Abhilash Nair, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University in the UK. Nair, the deputy editor of the International Review of Law, Computers and Technology and an expert on Internet law and censorship, explains the roots of Britain's porn debate and how the logistics of a government-imposed block might look.

Listen to the podcast (18:00 minutes).

Here are some excerpts from the podcast:

TechNewsWorld: Let me start by asking you about the tenor and the scope of this online pornography discussion in the UK. Talks about restricting access to porn have been going on for at least a year, and things seem to have kind of climaxed with this late-July speech from Prime Minister David Cameron. He invoked some grand rhetoric, talking about "corroding childhood" and "moral duty" and the like.

It's interesting that a prime minister would be talking so openly and so often about pornography, and I wonder to what extent this is a reflection of a large debate that's going on in Britain or if it's kind of a pet topic of the prime minister.

Nair: There have been a lot of pressure groups, people campaigning for child safety for a long time -- and I have campaigned for child safety for a long time. Now, when you're talking about child safety, there are two aspects to think of. One is when children are abused, and images of child abuse. There has been legislation where child pornography was specifically targeted, but the issue of protecting child from exposure to inappropriate content has only received so much attention very recently....

TechNewsWorld: The "moral duty" quote that I mentioned earlier, that was actually in reference to search engines. Prime Minister Cameron of course says that search engines are an integral component to carrying out the type of restrictions he envisions. Is it clear how much control UK regulators will try to exert over search engines? Is there a presumption among Cameron and among others that the search engines will fall into line? Or are people kind of gearing up for a tit-for-tat as far as who's responsible for what and who's going to be liable for what searches?

Nair: Well, I should say, if we're actually talking about child pornography images, if there is evidence to suggest that a lot of child pornography is accessed through regular search engines like Google, then obviously the prime minister has a point when he says that the search engines may be able to do more. Google, being such a huge company, if they adopt measures then other search engines will feel a moral obligation to follow suit.

Now, that is only with respect to child pornography, but with respect to regular, adult, legal pornography, I'm not entirely convinced how much pressure you can put on search engines to block access to pornographic images. That would be an absolutely absurd thing to do, to be honest.

TechNewsWorld: To what extent are protecting children from inappropriate content and weeding out child pornography -- to what extent are those two debates being tied up into one? It seems like -- of course these are two very different things, when you talk about children who sneak onto their parents' computer late at night and look up things they shouldn't, versus the exploitation of children who are themselves are in pornographic images. Is the UK trying to tackle both of these issues simultaneously? How does the legislation break down when you look at what seem to be two pretty different topics?

Nair: Exactly. Until fairly recently -- very, very recently, actually -- nobody even talked about the issue of protecting children from inappropriate content at the scale we are hearing now. We've had legislation to protect children from actual child abuse and actual child pornography from 1978. We have had a very hard stance against actual or virtual child pornography for a long time, but the issue of children accessing legal, adult pornography, and the big sort of mayhem, it's fairly recent with the prime minister talking about his porn proposal.

Now the danger with that is, the distinction between the two -- which like you said are two entirely different things -- the distinction between the two is sort of blurring in light of the recent media hype and the talks and the debates surrounding the prime minister's proposals.

Let me go back to the first question you asked me regarding the factors that prompted the recent proposals -- there have been a few really unfortunate cases recently in the UK, when two children in separate incidents were murdered -- horribly abused and murdered -- by pedophiles. Now that attracted a lot of media attention, and then there was a link to the perpetrators actually accessing pornography on the Internet -- some sort of extreme pornography on the Internet -- so then [people thought], 'Oh, well if you let people watch extreme, violent pornography, then there's the risk that normal people can turn into violent sexual offenders."

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author of The Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out his ECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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