Thursday 11 December 2014
Shouldn’t internet providers be made entirely responsible for the content they convey?
According to a report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 5,000 people were killed last month in jihadi attacks – which suggests that terrorism is the biggest threat to civilisation. But as David Cameron announces a new law that will outlaw “sexual communication” with children, it seems clear that paedophilia presents just as grave a threat to society’s wellbeing.
I doubt there were 5,000 deaths last month directly attributable to the paedophile network that extends around the globe wherever the internet has penetrated (there may be a leafy glade somewhere in the Amazon basin that lacks network coverage). But I’m willing to bet that the number of young lives ruined and blighted by the spectre of child abuse was even greater.
There’s one big difference between jihadis and paedophiles. Jihadis will never achieve their aim of converting the world to their extreme and perverted form of Islam. They will never win. Individual paedophiles, on the other hand, with no such overarching ambitions, already have. They’re with us already, the terrorists online in the back room, doing what they do with virtual impunity. But that can change.
Speaking at the #wePROTECT Children Online conference in London, Cameron said the proposed new law, which will form part of the Serious Crime Bill currently making its way through Parliament, will prevent paedophiles from soliciting sexual images from children. That begs the question as to why it’s not been made illegal long before now, but it will be a welcome addition to the fight against child abuse.
He also promised – and let’s hope that’s a real promise, not a Cameron promise – that a unit will be set up jointly by the National Crime Agency and GCHQ to target the worst offenders. This is also welcome, and necessary, and it gets to the heart of the issue: the internet is the medium through which paedophilia is played out, and monitoring the internet with a microscopically fine digital toothcomb must provide the central thrust of any campaign.
Speaking about the fight against terrorism, Cameron made an interesting plea at the conference. He urged internet providers like Yahoo and Google to take a more proactive role, applying the same “principles of common sense, decency and moral responsibility as we do to real life”. They should alert the authorities, for example, if anyone carries out a search for, say, bomb-making.
Well yes, of course – and shouldn’t the providers take a similar approach to paedophilia, not just blocking, but reporting it too? At the moment the providers block hundreds of search terms, and certain URL addresses won’t come up. This is all good – but why can’t the providers track back the request to the computer it came from? The technology is there – and it’s what the police should be doing, but they’ve warned that thanks to budget cuts, there is a serious lack of specialist officers. Perhaps resources for fighting paedophilia should be ring-fenced, along with the NHS and other prioritised areas. But meanwhile, shouldn’t the service providers be doing even more? Shouldn’t they be required to tell the police who’s been making dodgy requests?
In fact, shouldn’t the providers be made entirely responsible for the content they convey? If The Independent were to publish images of child abuse, we would be held legally accountable. If we were to publish lies about someone, we could be sued. If we were to print certain details about a defendant before or during a trial, our editor could go to prison. We are responsible for the material that goes in our newspaper. Why should Google or Yahoo or Facebook be any different? If terrorists or paedophiles are plotting online, why shouldn’t it be compulsory for the service provider to monitor the process and alert whoever needs to be alerted? And if they say it’s technically too difficult, why don’t they get some tips from America’s National Security Agency? They seem to have no trouble carrying out electronic surveillance.