Photo: AFP
'No Cyber Sex Please, We're British'
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'No Cyber Sex Please, We're British' David Cameron's farcical war on porn

By Photo: AFP

“No Sex Please, We’re British” was a comedy that ran for years in London’s West End, a sex romp in a tradition of what was called the ‘Whitehall Farce.’ This week’s attack on internet porn by prime minister David Cameron could be billed as a kind of revival: “No Cyber Sex Please, We’re British.” It certainly has farcical overtones.

Trumpeting Monday’s announcement most loudly was the Daily Mail, which hailed the installation of “family friendly filters” on new broadband connections as a victory in its campaign to “Block Online Porn.” Cameron was happy to give the powerful mid-market conservative newspaper credit. “The Daily Mail has campaigned hard to make internet search engine filters ‘default on,’” he told reporters. “Today they can declare that campaign a success.”

Hold on. The Mail? It didn’t take long for pesky bloggers to dummy up photo-shopped versions of the Mail’s website to highlight the problem. Mail Online, which claims to have surpassed the New York Times as the world’s most visited newspaper site, relies heavily on celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, voyeurism, and high volumes of naked flesh. As Alex Hern pointed out in the New Statesman, the Mail could fall foul of the same filters it has championed. Oops.

Then another comic double-take. Soon after the press conference, Cameron refused to support a popular petition to end the 40 year tradition of daily topless page three models in Britain’s best-selling newspaper. “There’s no News in Boobs” is the tagline of the No More Page Three campaign started last summer when Lucy Ann Holmes noticed Britain’s successful female Olympic athletes were still overshadowed by nipples in Rupert Murdoch’s daily tabloid. When it comes to “letting children be children,” there’s no filter or firewall protecting them from the Sun.

Consistency be damned, though. Late July and August is the media’s silly season here. With parliament in recess, and most politicos, pundits and spin doctors taking month-long vacations in Tuscany or the Dordogne, almost any storyfrom skateboarding ducks to dilating royal cervixescan dominate the front pages and airwaves. History returns, as Hegel famously never said, the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce. But what about the third time? Spin?

The farce over internet porn is actually a fairly smart bit of strategy. This preternaturally hot British summer marks a pivotal moment for the coalition government. There are only two more years to go in the agreement signed by Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in 2010. With support for the Lib Dems cratering, Cameron’s only hope for second term in office is to establish clear-blue Tory water, to appease sceptics in his own party, and to fight off UKIP, the anti-EU party which has emerged to challenge the Conservatives, for the first time in generations, from the right.

Hard to enforce and easy to circumvent, Cameron’s plans to censor internet porn has much more to do with the populist optics than any practical policy. With a moribund flat-lined economy, the Labour Party, under new leader Ed Miliband, has established a double-figure poll lead for almost two years. However, with the help of a controversial Australian lobbyist and political strategist,  Lynton Crosby (“the Wizard of Oz”), the Tories have managed to claw that deficit back to single figures in recent weeks.  

Most of this was achieved through classic Rovian tactics: red meat to the right on issues like immigration and welfare, andshooting UKIP’s foxpromising a referendum on continued EU membership. Meanwhile other moves, such as the successful passage of much-trumpeted legislation on same sex marriage (against the wishes of most his party) helps keep some of Cameron’s “compassionate conservative” credentials alive. Internet porn is another twist in these kind of triangulations.

Just as Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance divided Americans between civil libertarians and social communitarians rather than a simple left and right axis, Cameron is appealing across party lines to those who prize safety and cohesion above liberty and privacy. He announced his measures at the NSPCC headquartersthe highly respected National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Though immediately mocked by bloggers, he has tapped a profound communitarian concern about child protection, deepened last year after one of Britain’s most famous TV celebrities, Sir Jimmy Savile OBE, was exposed as a prolific sex offender after his death. Britain’s equivalent to the Sandusky scandal keeps rumbling on, with several high profile celebrities still facing trial, and a well-known TV sports presenter, Stuart Hall, having his jail sentence doubled on Friday for the rape of minors.

Cameron’s bid to “preserve childhood” is thus much more of an affective ploy than an effective programme. Britain led the field in the late ’90s with police investigations of online child porn, and with powerful takedown procedures only a tiny fraction of child porn is hosted in the country. Viewing such images, even for “research” purposes, is deemed commissioning a crimeas Who frontman Pete Townsend found to his cost.

With a sure eye for populism, the prime minister also tilted his lance at the big U.S. search engines: “I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo! and the rest,” Cameron said, demanding a blacklist of certain search terms that could lead to obscene images of minors. “You have a duty to act on thisand it is a moral duty.”

Again it’s hard to see how the UK will legislate against Boolean search terms. Words like ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ produce important medical advice, and child porn is hidden under cryptic code-words. Finding an algorithm that can decipher depraved intent would defy even the most avid believers in artificial intelligence and the Turing test.

But bashing U.S. internet giants is a low-risk, high-reward strategy these days. The Guardian’s leaks about the cozy relationship between Silicon Valley companies and the NSA haven’t caused quite the same stir among Britseven though as foreign citizens we have zero legal protection against warrantless searches. But the fact that Google, Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks use regulatory global arbitrage to pay zero corporation tax has become a big bone of contention, with executives hauled before MPs to explain themselves. A Google vice president was recently told by the Labour chair of a parliamentary committee that his company’s tax policy was evil.

On this seemingly firm ground though, Cameron is stepping into a quagmire. The man who carefully crafted Cameron’s modernized, more liberal image for seven years, close advisor and guru Steve Hilton, left for Stanford last March to join his wife who is head of communications at Google. At least two other senior policy advisors have left Cameron’s inner circle since to join the internet search engine giant. Google is beginning to be seen as a lucrative exit plan for policy makers in the UK, in the same way that, for years until the phone hacking scandal, News Corp. subsidiaries BskyB and News International provided a bright shiny revolving door. For all the noise and fury, it’s likely that this kind of hiring power and lobbying clout will dictate future internet regulation, rather than the protests of techno-libertarians or child protection workers.

Peter Jukes is a writer based in London and the author of Fall of the House of Murdoch.

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