It is a classic British story. Our pornography laws have caused trouble from Lady Chatterley onwards. It is a tale of good intentions and farcical results.
Eventually, people grasped that whatever the moral or religious reasons for wanting to outlaw porn, it fell into the same category as alcohol. The demand was too great, the potential profits too great, and the difficulties of banning too great. Attempts to ban porn lead to the same absurdities as Prohibition.
There was one exception: child porn. As part of our obsession with paedophiles and harm to children generally, we decided that child porn must still be banned. That is perhaps not such a bad decision. The problem was that we decided that merely downloading child porn (as opposed to shooting it or making money out of it) was a serious criminal offence. There are two difficulties about that. First, it is clearly not in the same category as actually abusing children. Second, it is hard to prosecute offenders in a satisfactory way. Tens of thousands of people in the UK download child porn. Some inadvertently, some out of mild curiosity, some because they are seriously deranged characters who want to gaze at images in the intervals between abusing actual children. Moreover, the evidence can be somewhat tricky. The internet is full of ID theft, spoofed IP addresses etc. Some care is needed to make sure that the alleged offender really did commit the offence.
One approach is to focus on a small number of the most serious cases. Operation Ore started in the US as Operation Avalanche. The FBI eventually brought only a few hundred prosecutions. But in that case, you might just as well use downloading as pure intelligence to direct you towards actual abusers. The police in the UK under Jim Gamble adopted the opposite approach of trying to prosecute everyone. It was a fairly unmitigated disaster.
I have never quite got to grips with all the “national” police organizations. Jim Gamble has spent much of his career in them. He currently seems to have a rank equivalent to deputy chief constable. His current title is CEO of CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) which is somehow connected to SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency).
Gamble clearly feels passionately about the horror of child abuse and is determined to bring down the malefactors. Unfortunately, buoyed perhaps by public support, he has not done a good job. I have written before about Operation Ore (see here). But giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on 10 January 2007, he saw things differently:
Let us be clear, did we learn lessons in Operation Ore as a service? Of course we did. I think it is important to recognise that the volumes were unlike anything anyone had seen before in a single crime type and it was complex. Sometimes people were seduced by the complex nature of it because it is the Internet and you see it as a labyrinth and where do you go. I think historically there has been a tendency to say, “We cannot do anything about it because it is the Internet. We cannot make a difference because this technology is something we cannot understand.” The principal lesson we learned from Operation Ore is this: the Internet is simply another public place, it is like this room, and the Internet is not good or bad; the people who occupy it at any given time will decide how good or bad it is. From a UK policing point of view, the lesson we learned is when you look at the suspects in these cases you have to categorise and prioritise them on the basis of those who represent the greatest potential risk to children. We did that and to date there are over 2,300 cases that have been dealt with through the judicial process and there has been a finding of guilt either through conviction in court or in just over 600 cases cautions … I think Operation Ore was great work by the British Police Service
That makes fairly clear that he has learnt nothing from Operation Ore. But equally he is doing the job society has asked him to do with a great deal of determination.
Three years before Operation Ore, the Met told the Internet Service Providers Association that it thought they were guilty of carrying illegal (because obscene) content. The Met regarded them as “publishers”. Spurred by that threat, and following discussions with the DTI, Home Office and police, it was agreed that the Internet Watch Foundation should be set up. It is a purely charitable organization, with no connections with government, but apparently blessed by the government, and funded by donations from the ISPs and others, now including the European Union.
It acts on complaints from members of the public and maintains a black list of sites which it considers to have unsuitable images or other material. This mainly means child porn, although theoretically its remit extends to racial hatred and to other “criminally obscene” material. The importance of the black list, is that the ISPs then block these pages.
Most people had never heard of it until it decided to block a Wikipedia page at the beginning of this week for hosting this image:
an album cover which is widely available on the internet, and indeed the album itself is still available in record stores. For obscure technical reasons, the resulting blocking then prevented UK users from editing any Wikipedia page. Wikipedia complained. Peter Robbins, apparently a leading light at the IWF, duly appeared on Channel 4 news looking totally out of his depth, and apparently in his sitting room in Royston:
At the moment the clip (2:21) is still available on the C4 site. John Snow is apparently so bemused that he cannot bring himself to ask many tough questions.
I am fairly sceptical about the merits of well-intentioned, quasi-official organizations having the de facto power to censor internet material, particularly when (as is inevitable) they only have the resources to block a tiny proportion of the material which they would consider unsuitable. So any row, such as this one, just results in a hundred-fold increase in the number of people viewing the unsuitable material.
One view is that it all comes back to the serious failings in our constitution. The Human Rights Act has, unexpectedly, been of some benefit in enshrining basic liberties, but it is not enough. There is also the difficulty of the Executive and the Commons being too responsive to public clamour for “something to be done” about some minor issue whipped up by the mass media. We need some better system of checks and balances, or maybe sunset provisions, or maybe better back-up for the Opposition (a “Ministry of the Opposition”).