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Online pornography: Education is the real answer, not legislation

The Lib Dems will have a public debate on whether we, as a society, should try to control access

How to stop children easily accessing legal internet pornography poses a dilemma for the Liberal Democrats that it doesn’t for any other British political party.

For the Conservatives the issue is clear: “opt out” internet porn filters are not only sensible – they are a vote winner. For Labour the position is also obvious: there is nothing to be gained from being the party that is soft on porn.

But the Liberal Democrats have no such easy options as the party base is opposed to anything that smacks of state censorship – even so-called “voluntary” agreements with industry. To this end it is very likely that Tim Farron’s motion to the party’s spring conference will pass.

But ordinary Liberal Democrat voters (or people the party hope will vote for it in 2015) are not as wedded to such fundamentally libertarian views. It was striking that when David Cameron first proposed the idea of opt-out filters last year, Nick Clegg was notably silent.

But now, thanks to Mr Farron, the party will have a public debate on whether we, as a society, should try in principle to control access to online pornography. And that’s a good thing – not least because until now the debate has been more about political positioning than facts. 

People need to be aware that many of these filters are crude, censoring sites such as sexual helplines, which young people should be able to use in confidence. They are also unlikely to be effective at stopping tech-savvy young people from accessing porn if they really want to.

The reality is that when it comes to the internet, education rather than legislation is almost always more useful.