Our Prime Minister is so worried that the EU might prevent the UK from protecting children from pornography that, as he told Parliament yesterday during PMQs, “I spluttered over my cornflakes when I read the Daily Mail this morning because we have worked so hard to put in place those filters.”
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Mr Cameron was indulging in a little political poetic licence there. For starters, the last time I got my news from sitting down and reading the paper over breakfast was about 2003 and I’m not the Prime Minister. If he’d said “I almost woke Sam at 5.30 this morning exclaiming “bloody hell” when I scrolled down my newsfeed on my phone in bed”, I might buy it.
No, actually, I wouldn’t buy it. David Cameron is really interested in internet filtering, pornography and protecting children. We know that because he’s mentioned it many times in speeches in the past and there was a reference to it in the conservative manifesto. He’s also really interested in Europe, I think. He goes there quite a bit and I read that he’s busy negotiating lots of important things.
All in all, the likelihood of the Daily Mail being his first source of information on the EU net neutrality rules is pretty slim. They have been kicking around for some time and I’m pretty sure he’s been briefed on them, even if only by a quick look at the Telegraph over his Weetabix back in July.
I have to assume, then, that the Daily Mail/cornflakes line was used deliberately by the Prime Minister because he wants to portray himself as a sit-down-to-breakfast, read the paper, worry about the kids kind of guy and he wants to reassure us that he’s got our backs when it comes to those sexually liberal foreign types making merry with our porn laws. He wants to reassure Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells that he’s on it and distance himself from any sense of being at home in a digital landscape.
What a shame.
What a shame that he didn’t take the opportunity to talk about how rich and varied an experience the digital world can be. How sad that he didn’t point out that that the internet is a key source of information, communication, advice and support for young people. What a missed opportunity to talk about the challenge of protecting children and young people at the same time as enhancing their experience, helping them learn about taking risks and enabling their growth and development. What a pity he didn’t meander down a train of thought that included critical thinking, education, preparation for life, curiosity, emerging sexuality.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about the way we treat young people and the digital world. I’ve learned that, with all good intentions, but only a modicum of understanding, we attempt to filter and block and censor – a lot of blunt tools with all sorts of unintended consequences (like the blocking of…ahem… important sexual health charity websites). Filtering is complex* and poorly understood by the public, the media, website owners and many politicians. We have never had a good quality public debate that asks questions like: who should judge what content is appropriate for whom? Is that the job of your ISP? How can we both protect and enhance young people’s experience? Do we all draw the same lines about when something becomes pornographic? Who should hold the balance of power when it comes to deciding what young people can access?
As usual, the biggest unanswered question is “What do young people think?” I don’t see many of those involved in this debate actually talking to young people. If you ask about young people’s voice or opinions in meetings with the Internet Service Providers (and I do), they don’t actually roll their eyes (because they’re a nice group of people, to be honest) but you can feel them doing it on the inside – “here she goes again…”
If we really and truly want to make the internet a safe, happy, empowering, exciting, interesting and informative space for young people to grow and thrive, we cannot simply try and block their access to bits of it. Instead, let’s start having sensible conversations with young people about what they see online, how they respond to it and what they might do in their lives to make it better. Perhaps Mr Cameron could mull that over next time he has a quick peek at Twitter during his lunchbreak.
* I’m not planning to run Filtering 101, but, can I suggest you;
a) visit Internet Matters, read up on it and, if you run a website, submit a request to find out how your site is categorised.
b) understand more about the main four Internet Service Providers’ home broadband filtering options so you that you understand the way that filtering works or the extent to which your site might be being blocked.
c) make sure you feel happy about all that.