Here comes the charge of the anti porn brigade

No-one learns about children's attitudes to sex by blocking porn; least of all politicians

Image: taken by Ed Yourdon on a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Many of my old schoolfriends can barely remember any of their I.T lessons, let alone the 'Porn Incident' of Year Nine, when a small group of boys were found sharing pornographic images on school computers. It came as something of a surprise, mainly because everyone else knew not to do at school what they shouldn't even have been doing at home.

Anyway, they were caught one dreary afternoon and temporarily suspended for their misconduct. Then they came back. Everyone (nearly) forgot about it in the end. And eventually we all grew up.

But perhaps I've learnt the wrong lesson from this tale. Maybe I should be more alarmed at the ease with which pornographic material can be transferred, or that controls aren't automagically installed on school computers in order to prevent a repeat outcome.

At least this is impression I get from the report produced by Claire Perry MP and her merry band of porn blockers. The recent Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection states that “six out of ten children can theoretically access the internet with no restrictions in their home”. In the hands of professional scaremongers this turns into Six out of ten children download adult material (yes, that's right; apparently 60% of kids have nothing better to do than stream smut onto their smartphones. When they're not rioting, of course).

But, in a bid to appease such moral panic, politicians will continue to search for the ultimate solution. The inquiry report suggests a network level “Opt-In” system emulating the one “already used by most major UK mobile phone companies”. Yet, it is not foolproof; see the infamous example of O2 blocking a church's website on the grounds that it featured adult content.

Internet Service Providers are rightly weary about the implementation of an überblock. TalkTalk have been bold enough to nudge new customers who wish to purchase their HomeSafe service into making an “Active Choice” over having adult content filtered on their behalf. But that is – and ought to be –  the limit of an ISP's powers. Buying an internet package is not like ordering pizza. You can't have a no-frills version with the option of requesting some porn as a top-up.

As Professor Andy Phippen pointed out during the inquiry's oral sessions last year, the überblock is not the practical common sense solution Perry would have us believe. He said: “the vast majority of filtering technology is either metadata-based or keyword based”. So it cannot differentiate between sites that contain the words like 'sex' and sites specifically created for the purpose of displaying adult content. This raises the problem of false positives; filters will inevitably block the truths that may satisfy a child's curiosity over topics that refer to sex, such as anatomical biology, breast cancer, or sexual health.

The intention to adapt a combination of Ofcom and BBFC definitions of adult content for the web also neglects the fluidity of ratings systems. The 'TV watershed' has changed over the years, just as have ratings of many adult films. Both institutions revise their opinions more often than we think. It may turn out that their judgements on particular kinds of adult content may still be unpalatable for Perry and her porn-blocking posse, in whom Mary Whitehouse's spirit very much complains about video nasties, no doubt.

On a non-technical note, pornography is only one of a seemingly infinite number of things a parent has to worry about in raising their offspring. Never mind sex; children are just as easily at risk of discovering webpages portraying racially inappropriate or excessively violent content, or being bullied online.

And yet, according to the recent Ofcom media use and attitudes report, four-fifths (81%) of parents of five to fifteen year-olds trust their child to use the internet safely. 65% feel that its benefits outweigh the risks. Perhaps Claire Perry ought to trust parents to make the final call on their own kids' internet usage.

In my own school experience, porn took up very little time in the average boy's everyday life. Those who talked about it most probably had a stash to flog. But it meant nothing over the years, for porn rapidly gave way to texting and phoning girls, secretly hoping they'd return our advances soon enough for us not to fret over whether the feelings were mutual. That, or we'd go and play football.

Admittedly, this was at the tail-end of the dial-up era; mobile WAP technology was painfully slow and certainly not worth the cost. But I detest the notion that today's youth are sexually depraved porn-obsessed zombies, wandering about glued to their gadgets, getting xxx-rated content on the move without a care for anything else. What a way to insult their intelligence.

Porn or no porn, as social beings, children will inevitably be exposed to sex in ways that will fascinate and frighten them. There's no getting around that. If – like Andrea Leadsom MP – you still entertain the idea that “some sort of internet ISP network level security is the only answer that might potentially solve this once and for all”, then you will not have even begun to truly comprehend the innumerable factors underlying children's attitudes to sex.

The general – if slightly glib – opinion of the 'Porn Incident' at my school was that if the culprits were stupid enough to get caught, then they deserved the punishment they got. But then other more important things took over our lives and we all got over it.

Those with serious reality-fantasy anxieties directly affected by pornography ought to be examined and helped privately; there is no need to legislate for everyone else. But if there have to be any rules on internet usage at all, politicians should let parents set them. As one blogger so eloquently put it, child protection begins at home.

Habib Kadiri usually operates under the moniker of heakthephreak, mainly @heakthephreak.blogspot.co.uk.

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By Habib Kadiri on Apr 20, 2012

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