LONDON—The list of companies summoned to the Houses of Parliament today for the Summit at No. 10 reads like a who’s who of internet giants, which it actually is: Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, BT, BSkyB, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Vodafone, O2, EE and Three all showed up to the meeting, chaired by Culture Secretary Maria Miller, ostensibly to hash out ways to better protect children from dangers that lurk online.
By meeting's end, the companies had agreed to implement a new “zero tolerance” policy that includes increased funding (£1million over four years) for the Internet Watch Foundation, which maintains a database of blocked sites and will now be able to more proactively look for sites containing images of child sexual abuse, closer cooperation with law enforcement to find and block images of child sexual abuse, and the creation of splash pages that will pop up to let surfers know when they are about to access sites with illegal content that have been blocked by the government.
The government also asked the ISPs to look into ways to keep illegal content from being uploaded to the internet, but as the Telegraph noted, “Asking ISPs to monitor and decide on material being uploaded by users would raise further concerns around free speech.”
Culture Secretary Miller said plans agreed to by the participating companies would lead to “fundamental change” in the way government and industry work together to battle child sexual exploitation.
But some people had much higher, or shall we say different, hopes for the summit. For a vocal and determined group of anti-porn activists both in and out of the British government, the point of the summit was never to meet and discuss new ways to do more of the same, but to force the hand of internet mega-companies to begin the implementation—and ensure the completion—of a national opt-in blockade of online pornography.
The Daily Mail, a virulent supporter of the opt-in plan, was spitting mad after the summit concluded, calling it less a “moral showdown” than a “cosy coffee-morning between friends,” and all but characterizing it as a gathering of criminal gangs to ensure their own survival at the expense of civilization. In a commentary on the meeting posted to the middle of its own article, the Mail even took a shot a Google’s agreement to pay into the £1million fund, on top of another £1million it promised last week, by referring to the money as “a minute fraction of the tax that Google doesn’t pay.” No matter which side of this opt-in business one is on, that observation is spot on funny and depressingly true.
That said, the Mail's bitter grousing will do little to mitigate the fact that the expectations of the ban-the-porn crowd have never been aligned with reality. It's not a new phenomenon by any means. In Australia and to a lesser extent in Iceland and the United States, serious attempts to treat the internet like an actual street on Main Street by regulating ISPs like brick-and-mortar retailers, or worse, like television broadcasters, have all ended in failure for good reason.
As Simon Phipps of ComputerWorld UK put it earlier in the day, “[The ISPs] are unable to make a real contribution without infringing heavily on the rights and freedoms of other internet users because they are not the group responsible for the offending material. This is a fact to which politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be impervious. No matter how the ISPs try to explain the logical holes in the argument, [Culture Secretary] Miller and her ilk continue to assert that ISPs should be held responsible for the content they carry.”
Oh, how familiar that argument is to many people on this side of The Pond. But Phipps was far from finished explaining the government’s profound deficiencies with respect to the internets. (In the U.S., we separate out the section of the government that actually invented the world wide web from that which dreams up and then passes abusive and useless laws to regulate it.)
“The meeting,” Phipps continued, “demonstrates clearly that the government has no clue what the internet does or how important it is to society. They appear to model it as a TV system, with regulated providers sourcing material for passive viewers. This overlooks its main value to society as a global nervous system in which contribution of content is as universal as its consumption. Legislators are still trapped by special-interest pleading over selected uses of the internet as a one-way channel for content, and as a consequence are contemplating laws that would utterly cripple that nervous system.
“Their solutions,” he concluded, “all assume the providers select the content and can be instructed to do it differently. We’re all well aware that this is not the case, and that attempts to make it so will cause orders of magnitude more harm than they prevent. Long ago we decided the solution to hate mail was not to make the postman responsible for it. Why are today’s politicians insisting on the equivalent approach for the internet?”
For critics of the results of today’s summit, answering that question honestly would by definition undermine the foundation of their entire campaign to turn internet service providers into a thousand active arms of the government, charged with "protect[ing] children from legal pornography sites through the imposition of automatic filters” and “tak[ing] down indecent images themselves.” Real cops on the beat.
On the other hand, coming out of such a high level meeting with a promise from some of the richest companies in the world to pony up a lousy £1million over four years sends a pretty poor message about how seriously they take the situation. That's not a hard call to make for those who do not agree that legal porn causes child sexual abuse or that it should be subjected to opt-in filtering. What's tough is believing that so much more could be done to target the real makers and brokers of child sex abuse contraband.