By Andrew Gimson
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David Cameron’s speech about the control of internet pornography is a more astute and temperate piece of work than one would think from the attacks made on it. A note of hysteria is detectable in the charge that the Prime Minister’s reforms would turn this country into a totalitarian state.
We are warned we shall find ourselves living in China, yet in the same breath we are assured that Mr Cameron’s proposals are mere posturing which will not work. As Paul Goodman observed on this site yesterday morning, these two accusations cannot both be true.
Having read the speech, I would like to confirm that neither charge is true. People of an extreme frame of mind will never comprehend Mr Cameron. He wishes to pursue a middle path. This makes him an intellectually unsatisfying figure to those for whom politics entails the pursuit of ideological certainty.
We do not wish to be unrealistic about this. As Mr Cameron says, “Young people have always been curious about pornography and they have always sought it out.” We know children are ingenious, and often possess a better understanding of computers than we do ourselves. We don’t imagine the circulation of bad material can ever be stopped entirely, or that even if it could, no one would ever have depraved ideas about sex.
But we do worry that the laxity with which we police, or fail to police, the internet amounts to a kind of complicity in the supply of hard-core porn to impressionable minds. As Mr Cameron observes, in no other market “do we have such an extraordinarily light touch when it comes to protecting our children”.
A bizarre divergence has taken place. We are more zealous than ever at protecting our children from the risk to life and limb posed by such wholesome activities as climbing trees. But at the same time we have become more lax at protecting them from hard-core pornography.
There is a kind of virtuous libertarian who at this point in the argument condemns parents for being negligent. I am myself a parent, and am ready to admit that I am negligent, if negligence means often not knowing what my children are doing.
But many parents go out to work, often for exhaustingly long hours, and even when we are at home we do not wish forever to be gazing over our children’s shoulders. Perfect parents do not exist, and would be intolerable if they did. We might in theory spend our leisure hours fiddling with the settings on the computers in our house, but in practice we often feel an invincible aversion to doing so, and would rather have a drink. The wise legislator thinks of us as we actually are.
The Prime Minister suggests there is a contract between parents and the state. We agree to do our best to raise our children right, and the state agrees to stand on our side, “to make that job a bit easier, not harder”. The most notable thing about this ambition is its modesty. Mr Cameron is not pursuing a politics of perfection. He just wants the task of parents to be made “a bit easier”.
Which is why the assertion that the filters he commends will not be entirely effective is beside the point. Few of us are naive enough to believe that every noxious pornographic image can be removed by these filters. We are not going to be “lulled into a false sense of security”, as patronising critics of the reforms have alleged. We would just like to have a sporting chance of blocking the flow of pornography into our households without having to take a course in computer science.
And as Mr Cameron says, the internet search engines have been devised and are continually being improved by people of the highest ability: “You’re the people who take pride in doing what they say can’t be done.” To say a filter will not work, or can be got round by an ingenious six-year-old, may be true, but is no defence against devising a better filter. Nor should the brilliant innovators and entrepreneurs who create firms like Google be allowed to get away with the pretence that they are in no way responsible for the uses to which their inventions are put.
In Mr Cameron’s words to them, “You are not separate from our society, you are part of our society, and you must play a responsible role in it.” The same might be said about the banks, or the trade unions, or any other part of our society. It is so obvious it should scarcely need saying. But one of the gravest difficulties under which the Conservative Party labours is that it is widely assumed to be an uncritical friend to the rich and to big business. Mr Cameron has himself taken trouble to advertise his close relations with internet service providers.
This speech was a useful sign that the Conservative Party does not offer a blank cheque to international corporations or to pornographers. The fact that any reasonable Labour supporter could agree with its sentiments is no defect, for Labour supporters are usually social conservatives who understand the need to restrain the most demeaning excesses of the permissive society. Step by step, Mr Cameron is colonising the territory which a hard-headed Labour leader would have got to first. Once the self-indulgent moans of the techies have died down, almost everyone will recognise that reforms of this kind are several years overdue.