Cameron’s personal speech

John Rentoul

googlespeech 300x169 Camerons personal speechDavid Cameron made an important speech today on making the internet safer for children, normally a non-political subject.

I previewed the speech for The Independent on Sunday, making the point that taking on Google is a good way of deflecting Ed Miliband’s charge that Cameron is overly influenced by big money in the symbolic form of Lynton Crosby’s client list. Everyone has heard of Google and, though they find its search engine, docs and email useful, they are suspicious of its vast corporate power and some of the lengths to which it will go to avoid paying taxes.

Cameron wasn’t quite so blunt in his speech, but I reported that he has been quite animated, telling Google its “freedom of speech” argument is “not good enough” and accusing it, in effect, of “aiding someone doing a criminal act”.

In the speech he explained what he meant:

These search engines … act to block illegal images and the URLs, or pathways that lead to these images from search results, once they have been alerted to their existence.

But here, to me, is the problem.

The job of actually identifying these images falls to a small body called the Internet Watch Foundation.

This is a world-leading organisation, but it relies almost entirely on members of the public reporting things they have seen online.

So the search engines themselves have a purely reactive position.

When they’re prompted to take something down, they act.

Otherwise, they don’t.

And if an illegal image hasn’t been reported – it can still be returned in searches.

In other words, the search engines are not doing enough to take responsibility.

Indeed in this specific area they are effectively denying responsibility. And this situation has continued because of a technical argument.

It goes that the search engines shouldn’t be involved in finding out where these images are that they are just the ‘pipe’ that delivers the images and that holding them responsible would be a bit like holding the Post Office responsible for sending on illegal objects in anonymous packages.

But that analogy isn’t quite right.

Because the search engine doesn’t just deliver the material that people see it helps to identify it.

Companies like Google make their living out of trawling and categorising content on the web so that in a few key-strokes you can find what you’re looking for out of unimaginable amounts of information.

Then they sell advertising space to companies, based on your search patterns.

So to return to that analogy, it would be like the Post Office helping someone to identify and order the illegal material in the first place – and then sending it onto them in which case they absolutely would be held responsible for their actions.

It was also a more personal speech than usual, saying “we have neglected our responsibility to our children”, and thus invited comparison with Barack Obama’s “impromptu, instantly historic soliloquy on race” (Jonathan Chait) and the Trayvon Martin case on Friday.

If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth watching the full 18-minute video, including the everyday scrambling around at the start of a poorly attended White House media briefing, which was suddenly transformed by the presence of the Man himself, who then delivered, without notes, in a conversational but sombre tone of voice, his thoughts as what Andrew Sullivan called the Defuser-in-Chief.

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  • Hill244

    John we all agree on banning child porn – what we disagree with is mission creep that leads to banning Islamic or left wing sites. Poorly draughted legislation – “Straw Dogs” would be illegal!

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    And here’s a sensible comment on Obama’s rubbish:

  • Pacificweather

    It is safe to attack Google as they don’t contribute to the party, unlike tobacco companies. It is safe for 16 year olds to be influenced by packaging to take up smoking but not to watch legal porn. So by trying to deflect from party greed he has politicised porn and seems to have impressed a political reporter.

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