Making images of paedophilia harder to find on Google is no bad thing, but it doesn’t tackle the abuse itself

Real action to protect children is about more than search algorithms


Here are two things that you don’t want to think about on any morning: child sex abuse images on the internet, and the prospect of teenagers becoming sexually active before they are mature enough to deal with the consequences. And here are two obliging solutions which mean you’ll no longer have to: Google and Microsoft have agreed to block images of paedophilia from appearing in response to more than 100,000 search terms, and politicians from across the spectrum have swiftly rejected Professor John Ashton’s suggestion that the legal age of consent be lowered to 15.

The blocking of search terms has been hailed by the Daily Mail as “a stunning victory” and by the Prime Minister as “a really significant step forward”. We are encouraged to view the move as the triumph of moral, responsible adults over the amoral internet service providers who, according to Cameron, “argued that it was against the very principle of the internet and search engines to block material”. Certainly any freedom of speech arguments for leaving search terms unregulated look ridiculous set against the horror of the cases of Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell, who last year were shown to have searched for child abuse images prior to committing murder. Such crimes are unspeakable, and that’s the beginning of our problem with legislating against them.

The real choice for the Government was not between blocking search terms and doing nothing; it was between a step which merely appears decisive and a policy which will result in real, effective action against the causes of child abuse. While the PM, Microsoft and Google are busy patting themselves on the back, there is time to point out the limitations of the move. It will not prevent child abuse, it will not remove the images of the abuse from the internet, it will not even prevent their circulation, since, as has been pointed out, this will likely continue in the way it always did, via the peer-to-peer networks known as “the dark net”. Where we have unquestionably succeeded, however, is in obscuring the abuse of children from view, and this is not an unequivocal victory.

Too much policy in the area of under 16s and sex seems shaped to spare adults from revulsion rather than save children from abuse. We are so disturbed by the spectre of paedophilia that we avoid confronting it head on as a social problem, while all the time fiddling around the edges of policy reform.

Even if you disagree, as I do, with Ashton’s suggestion that lowering the age of consent will ultimately help confused teenagers, the short shrift given to his call for a debate is yet another example of an unhelpful public queasiness regarding the issue. The confusion that Ashton describes regarding access to support and services for young people is absolutely real, and the fact that around a third of teenagers are sexually active before they turn 16 suggests that the legal age of consent plays little role in their decision-making. Meanwhile, the cultural influences which contribute to the sexualisation of children at a younger and younger age are many and varied. And so far there has been little concerted effort to tackle them.

Real action to protect children would mean confronting issues that are far more taxing than the search engine algorithms which apparently had the Government stumped. It would mean not only compulsory sex education in schools, but high-quality, internet-literate sex education of the kind already proposed by Warwickshire City Council and subsequently attacked as “crude” and “a complete misuse of taxpayers cash”. It would mean investment not only in law enforcement resources to track down and prosecute perpetrators of child abuse, but also in a care system which too often leaves children vulnerable to exploitation. Ultimately, it would also mean objective research into the psychology of abusers, research for which there is little appetite at present.

Those who celebrate this action from Microsoft and Google would like to see it as a first, faltering step on the road towards such meaningful action and hopefully it is. But we should also consider a more depressing possibility; that it is a policy-level continuation of the kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind response to the reality of child sex abuse that has long been the default for even the most well-meaning of adults. Historically, in schools, in churches and elsewhere the compulsion to deny and suppress discussion has again and again proven stronger than the instinct to protect children.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform