It’s hard not to suspect a degree of political opportunism in the Prime Minister’s decision to turn up the heat on internet companies over images of child abuse. Taking a swipe at Google – a sitting duck in PR terms following the storm over its derisory tax payments – David Cameron warns of tough new laws if big search companies don’t block access to what he has called depraved and disgusting images. And Google has been quick to come to heel.
It sounds like game, set and match to Mr Cameron. After all, except for a small, sick and malignant minority, everyone agrees that generating or collecting sexually explicit images of children is a depraved activity.
It is, however, worth noting that it is illegal already and that the police devote significant time and resources to hunting down merchants in child abuse. If they needed more resources, they should say so, as public opinion would ensure they got them.
It is also worth looking at the practicality and implications of what Mr Cameron wants, which is that search companies should block internet access to a blacklist of terms to be drawn up and regularly updated by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
It sounds commendable, until you remember that the introduction of a blacklist is not likely to deter the determined fraternity of child abuse addicts who clearly do not rely on tapping in a few obvious-sounding combinations to their keyboards in order to get hold of the material they want.
It will be easy for those involved in trading such images to come up with new, innocuous-looking verbal combinations that will serve as gateways to the sites in question. At most, a blacklist of terms will deter some confused and curious individuals from pursuing their wrong-headed searches. That is all well and good. However, these pathetic people are the least threatening element in this twilight world.
At the same time, the threatened introduction of censorship to the internet sets a disturbing precedent, calling to mind the blocks on certain terms that the Chinese and other authoritarian governments impose. It is hardly likely that Britain will go from trying to block internet access to pornographic sites to blocking access to religious and political material, as is the case in China. Still, it is a step in the wrong direction and not one that any defender of civil liberties should welcome.
Meanwhile questions remain about the timing of this campaign. On the surface, the Prime Minister has been galvanised into action by his recent emotive meeting with the parents of Tia Sharp and April Jones, whose killers stored caches of sexually explicit images.
Still, it is difficult not to see the sudden fit of moral indignation as containing a political element. Taking a pot shot at internet companies over this issue wrong-foots Labour – who can hardly fail to back Mr Cameron’s demand for greater state regulation, while finding their own campaign against Mr Cameron’s adviser, Lynton Crosby, suddenly sidelined.
At same time, a war on child abuse will mollify backbench Tory MPs who still feel angry about Mr Cameron’s support for gay marriage and can reassure their constituents that the Tory party leader is now sounding the trumpet on behalf of the kind of moral crusade that they feel much more comfortable with.
And of course it will do Mr Cameron no harm to cross swords with Google at a time when he is accused of caving in to lobbyists of big corporations. He can, therefore, hardly lose on this one – even if, as is likely, his apparent success in bringing the internet giants to heel does little to curb the evil he decries.