It’s a standard technique in government: use an interview to float an idea to gauge reaction, and to “suggest” a solution lest a more draconian legislative route be hypothetically taken. It’s the governmental equivalent of plonking a horse’s head in the bed. Even better if the interview appears near Christmas, when Paxman et al are hibernating and the fiercest political cross-examination you’re likely to get occurs on a pastel Daybreak sofa between Michael Buble and a Chuckle brother.
Thus it was with weary inevitability that I saw a weekend newspaper interview in which the (Conservative) coalition minister for t’internet Ed Vaizey muttered about making ISPs responsible for filtering adult content, and forcing consumers to opt-in to porn. Of course, since the internet is for porn according to Avenue Q, it should really be the other way round: get the porn by default, and opt-in to the non-porn.
What does Vaizey actually say? “I think it’s very important that it’s the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children.”
Ah, to protect children. The sainted kiddywinks, the mere mention of which serves to render all argument or dissent invalid. Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Well, it’s not about children, obviously. That’s a standard device used to justify any number of actions (and yet, still, the media laps it up). Here’s a tip: “for the children” means “we have an agenda and we’re deploying the C-bomb to distract you.” If the safety of children were truly the driving factor here, then I could suggest many more pressing matters.
For example, how about a ban on parents smoking around their children, particularly in enclosed environments such as cars?
Or let’s look at religion, where articles of faith are presented as fact, in which children can be indoctrinated with stuff and nonsense about sky fairies of one flavour or another with the full consent of the state, before they are old enough to be able to form their own opinions. And yet religion does not come with a warning sticker. (Don’t get me started on Catholic priests.)
As I said, it’s not about children. But hypothetically, were those proposals to be made, you just have to conjugate the verb: I protect children, you want a nanny state, he looks like a Belgian paedo. It’s all a matter of politics. Politically a government couldn’t win support to ban smoking around children, or the practice of religion. But it looks like it thinks it might be able to get away with the porn thing.
Like Parkinson’s law, the state tends to expand to fill the uncontrolled space available. Politics, or economics, or pragmatism, or other factors, determine whether or not the expansion is achievable in practice. It floats a proposal, to gauge initial reaction. It couches everything in terms designed to press the buttons of the electorate (“for the children”). It “concedes” meetings with those groups who actually know what they’re talking about, and lets the ignorant public Have Their Say. It performs the wildest acrobatics to be seen to “listen” and “engage”.
And then it makes a political decision. Not about the safety of the children, but of its majority. Could a bill pass? Will the Lords kill it? Will the Murdoch press support it? Politics is the art of the achievable, a concept some seem unable to grasp even with a compromise-driven coalition government in office.
Decision made to press on, it legislates with only a passing glance to the consultation with experts and public. There’s now a political agenda at work. The Opposition opposes, not through enlightenment but simply to fulfil its political purpose to oppose and obstruct regardless of the merits. (“We will support the government where it makes sense,” says every opposition leader, and again the media laps it up, frothing about a New Politics, but it never happens.)
How will this sordid dance play out with Vaizey’s hare-brained idea? Well, the ISPs and groups like ORG will patiently explain, with diagrams, that Problem One is to define porn, and that Problem Two is to correctly classify porn according to that definition when a human or algorithm is presented with some content. They will say that in any automatic or manual system there will be both false positives (non-porn wrongly classed as porn, such as educational materials, advice columns or Daily Mail stories about X Factor) and false negatives (porn wrongly classed as non-porn, which will happen for all sorts of reasons up to and including bugs, mendacity and pressing the wrong button). They will strongly recommend a well-defined, transparent corrective mechanism to allow for appeals, and they will ask why the hell are we being asked to be surrogate parents anyway?
The politicians will steeple their fingers and nod politely, making notes including pictures of boobies and willies and giggling amongst themselves. Then they’ll make simplistic analogies to TV watersheds and the controversial and secret Internet Watch Foundation blacklist of what somebody unknown once claimed to be child porn. They will invoke holy phrases like “children are our future” and that pol fave “our children, and our children’s children.”
And then when the experts have rolled their eyes for the nth time and left muttering, chances are we’ll see a bill that establishes an anonymous group of people who will, with only the flimsiest of oversight and a 99-step appeals process culminating in a rubber stamp of the word DENIED, maintain a secret list of verboten URLs. The members of the group will not be named “for their own safety, and to avoid nobbling” (they’ll snigger at the word “nobbling”). The list will be secret “to deter use of technical measures to bypass its restrictions” (despite the experts having told them that security through obscurity is a Bad Idea). The public will be assured that the system is foolproof (despite the experts explaining that the biggest fool is the fool calling any technology foolproof).
And the first URL on the list post-enactment will be the Wikileaks du jour. Because the Act will, of course, contain that other holy phrase of our age, “national security,” which can be applied to anything anyone decides it can be applied to. Additional URLs blocked will try and fail to stop copyright infringement on films, TV shows and recorded music, because some idiots still think that’s possible. And there’ll be a push to ban web sites for violent video games, movies and TV shows, too, because there always is.
For additional Kafka points, you will naturally commit a criminal offence if you access a URL on the list you are not allowed to see.
It’s all “for the protection of children,” you understand.