Hugo Rifkind

Cameron’s war on porn is a pointless stunt

21 November 2013

3:00 PM

21 November 2013

3:00 PM

What people don’t seem to realise is that the geeks are winning. Actually, scratch that. They’ve all but won. The world just hasn’t realised yet. So, when the likes of David Cameron talk of, say, blocking regular porn, or eradicating child porn, people take him seriously, as though this might actually be a thing in his power to do. Rather than what it truly is, which is something between a cynical gimmick and a last, desperate, deluded grasp at a dissolving straw.

I mean, look, it might work a bit. Aspiring nonces, I suppose, will be set back by a week or two. People who just stumble upon kiddie porn while searching for somebody else — a kipper pan, say — will, indeed, be warned off going any further. Meanwhile, children who are less capable of using computers than their parents (those under nine, in my experience) will indeed be less exposed to adult porn. And all of this is probably good. But the technology exists already to enable anybody who still wants their porn, be it nice or nasty, to get it. Today, it’s as easy as installing a printer. Pretty soon, it will be as easy as pushing a button. And then what?

The ability of people to dodge governments online is not a bad thing. People — journalists, really — talk about the ‘dark web’ as if it were some sort of shadowy internet hinterland, a nasty Narnia, or a secret cellar under the regular internet full of rats, heroin, and men in zippered masks like the gimp from Pulp Fiction. In fact, it’s just a way of connecting to the web with anonymity; be that the regular web, or bits of the web that require anonymity before they’ll let you in. It lets dissidents in Iran communicate with the outside word. It lets businessmen in China send stuff home without getting hacked.


Except if you can dodge nasty states, you can also dodge nice ones. Drugs, crime, terrorism, stolen credit card numbers, fake identities, information on how to turn a pressure cooker into a bomb; all of this stuff thrives when the technology available to the masses is no longer of a sort that governments can easily scrutinise. And that’s very nearly where we are. Sure, almost any encryption can be cracked eventually, but that’s a bit like saying any pint of water in the ocean could be put in a glass. The upshot, here, is that all sorts of things are on the verge of slipping from the orbit of the state. Enforceable copyright, for example, did so years ago. Money could be next. A few months ago, I wrote here about Bitcoin, an online currency. Remember that? At the time, I said I’d bought £100 of Bitcoins as an experiment, and those Bitcoins were now worth £200. Ring any bells? Well, at the time of writing, they’re worth — no really — 15 times that. The point is, whether this particular currency thrives or crashes, this a technology on the cusp of going mainstream. If you’re in, say, Zimbabwe, Bitcoin represents a way of getting your money out, regardless of whether Robert Mugabe wants you to. And if you’re over here? It represents a way to not pay tax.

All of these things are not just technical challenges for governments. They are existential ones. The ability of a state to coerce — for good or for ill — is ebbing away. And the choice that states will have to make is between letting it all go and doing what they can to mop up afterwards, or getting properly Nineteen Eighty-Four about things instead. Or to put it another way, government will have to content itself with either getting a whole lot smaller, or with muscling up and getting a whole lot bigger. If you wanted to do Mr Cameron the kindness of presuming that his war on porn was motivated by anything other than Daily Mail headlines, you might think that this was an early attempt to do the latter. As with much of that which Edward Snowden has claimed about surveillance, this looks a lot like the establishment of a pattern by which technology companies do what governments want them to.

Thing is, it won’t work. The famous Chinese firewall doesn’t even work. In fact, Cameron’s posturing on porn is probably even counterproductive. Today, probably a small percentage of men with computers know how to get around a porn block. In a year, most will. And the upshot will be that the light web shrinks and the dark web grows, and that great freedom event horizon, be it nasty or nice, gets closer still.

Share the roads

Why is it, when cyclists die, that everybody wants to know whose fault it is? Why should we care? Lorry drivers may drive with irresponsible abandon, but I doubt many of them are actively seeking to murder. Cyclists, meanwhile, may be arrogant, smug, smelly, cavalier, badly dressed and the Mayor of London (all at once) but still probably don’t deserve to be punished for these transgressions with a painful, flattening death. Stop it, basically. Think bike, yes. But also think more.

I’ve been thinking. What about timeshares on roads? Not everywhere, obviously. But from suburbs to city centre, certainly in London, there are a wealth of smallish, straightish roads going the same way.  I mean, do cars need Gray’s Inn Road and Farringdon Road every morning? They go the same way. Portland Place and Great Portland Street? Victoria Street and Petty France? So, by means of the odd retractable bollard, why not hand the smaller streets over to bikes alone for an hour or two every morning, and the same every night? Proper traffic could have it back later. Why not?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close