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Editorial: Internet can be a force for good

Despite privacy fears, most people recognise that the benefits outweigh the costs

Every now and again, opinion polls offer a window on the wisdom and pragmatism of the British people. So it is with our ComRes poll today, which reports that only 20 per cent of the population trust the Government to protect people's privacy on the internet from snooping by American intelligence agencies, while 57 per cent disagree. This is a healthy and democratic instinct. When the US National Security Agency's Prism programme was revealed, our nerves should have been jangled by the idea that the British and American governments are trawling through our private emails and family photos in "the cloud". When Edward Snowden, the leaker, was interviewed, his account of a cavalier attitude in the CIA towards laws supposedly safeguarding privacy should have reinforced our scepticism about governments' defence of civil liberties.

Since the initial shock, the Prism story has appeared to be slightly less alarming. If the internet companies are to be believed, the only times they have supplied government agencies with confidential material has been in response to specific legal requests, as we report on page 34. All the same, the story has been a valuable reminder of something of which most people were aware, fuzzily and intermittently, namely that much of their lives is on the internet and it is all traceable. Privacy is not what it used to be.

On the whole we don't mind this change. Or we positively welcome it. Indeed, if the CIA could remind us of our password for that little-used online savings account, we would be happier still. Generally, the internet, mobile telephony and the miniaturisation of electronics have vastly improved the quality of life. What technology has not done, however, is change human nature, which is why one of the most popular uses of the internet is for pornography.

Hence the more pressing concern most people have about the internet is not CIA snooping but the uses to which it can be put by paedophiles. The evidence that the easier access to indecent images of children leads to more assaults on children is inconclusive, but what is important is to harness the "snoopability" of the internet to crack down on child sexual abuse.

Thus Google, which was one of the companies named in the Prism story and which was already under fire for avoiding taxes, should be praised unequivocally for its contribution to the fight against child sexual abuse images on the internet. Last week, the company donated £1m to the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation, which works in this field, and we report that today the company is donating a further £2m to two US foundations. The company also announced it was stepping up its "hashing" effort to identify images of child sexual abuse and root out copies made anywhere on the internet.

John Carr, the UK government adviser on child internet safety, is unstinting: "In all my time working in this space, no company has ever devoted anything like this level of resources to working with civil society organisations to attack online child abuse images." As he says, "This is an important moment."

One other finding of our poll is notable. Despite the fears about privacy and about the uses of the internet by criminals, most people recognise that the benefits of new technology outweigh the costs. ComRes found that only 23 per cent agree that the "internet is bad for family life", while 61 per cent disagree. We salute the good sense of the British people and say: don't forget tonight's internet shopping order.