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Saving children's innocence from Internet porn

In a bold move, British Prime Minister David Cameron strikes a welcome balance between Internet freedom and society's hope to protect children from Internet pornography and the child-murderers who act on it.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / July 22, 2013

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (left) speaks with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee in London June 25. Berners-Lee is calling for an "Internet Users Bill of Rights" on the World Wide Web's 25th birthday.

Reuters

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For parents worried about their children finding porn on the web, British Prime Minister David Cameron is pushing a rather clever solution: Any new Internet connection, as well as smartphones, should come with a software filter ready to block pornographic images.

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To turn off the filter would take a conscious act by those who can prove they are over 18.

In other words, protecting the innocence of children would become the norm on the Internet. Those adults who opt out of the norm could do so – protecting their freedom – but would be crossing a moral line set down by society.

The prime minister has already arm-twisted Britain’s four biggest Internet providers to attach home network filters to new connections by the end of this year. For existing customers, they will be given “an unavoidable decision” about whether or not to install “family friendly content filters.”

This move is necessary for at least two good reasons: In a recent survey of more than 2,000 British parents, one-third said it is not their responsibility to teach their children about being safe online; and another survey found 80 percent of 16-year-olds regularly view obscene material.

Mr. Cameron’s move is one part of a package of steps aimed at curbing Internet pornography and the crimes associated with it. In a speech Monday laying out his actions, he pointed to the strong public response to two recent child murder cases in which the killers were found to have regularly viewed child sexual abuse images and violent pornography on the Internet.

The Internet “is where crimes happen and where people can get hurt,” Cameron said, adding that government must find a balance between freedom and responsibility. “My argument is that the Internet is not a side-line to ‘real life’ or an escape from ‘real life’; it is real life.”

His other moves include criminalizing depictions of rape on the web and pushing the big search engines, such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, to block searches for websites that include scenes of child sex abuse.

The search-engine industry is pushing back, however, claiming technical problems to the idea or that they are already helping in other ways to protect children. Yet if they don’t comply by October, they face potential legislation in Britain.

The prime minister is sure that such a creative industry can find a solution. He said the post office does not help customers find child porn and then send it to them, and neither should search engines.

“Of course, a free and open Internet is vital,” Cameron argues. “But in no other market – and with no other industry – do we have such an extraordinarily light touch when it comes to protecting our children.”

In taking such steps, Britain may be a leader among Western democracies. Iceland has toyed with blocking Internet porn while the European Parliament voted in March to recommend a ban on web porn but the proposal was watered down at the last minute.

Any elected government, unlike those in China, must find a way to ensure Internet access but protect the most vulnerable in society. As Cameron has discovered, this task requires a cooperative effort among government, the industry, and private groups.

Or as he told the search-engine companies, “You are not separate from our society, you are part of our society, and you must play a responsible role in it.”

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