Hugo Rifkind

Hugo Rifkind: From porn to Bitcoin, governments can't control the web — so why is Cameron trying? 

Plus: There is no need to ask whose fault it is when a cyclist dies; here's how we can have bike-only streets without building any

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

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.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Alexsandr

    Good god. someone writing sense about internet control
    Nice one.

  • malcolmkyle

    Government—in all its insidious forms— has finally run its course; the lives and livelihoods of hundred’s of millions of people worldwide have been destroyed or severely disrupted; many countries that were once shining beacons of liberty and prosperity have become toxic, repressive, smoldering heaps of hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency. It is now the duty of every last one of us to insure that the people who are responsible for this shameful situation are not simply left in peace to enjoy the wealth and status that their despicable actions have, until now, afforded them. Former and present government officials must not be allowed to remain untainted or untouched by the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow human beings. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We will provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.

  • Sue Black

    The geeks have won, and as part of that we are all becoming geeks, and if we are not, we need to be pretty quickly before we completely lose the plot. We need to help everyone to understand how to take up the massive opportunities and at the same time avoid the risks. I wrote about this in my open letter to the UK people and government: http://blackse.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/techmums-educate-a-women-and-you-educate-a-nation/ We need to create a tech savvy UK if we are to take part in the digital revolution. #techmums – Let’s educate our nation.

  • BoiledCabbage

    Cameron is all talk. He believes in nothing.

  • jatrius

    He thought it might woo Chelsea tractor mothers but he then chose such clearly poorly informed advocates to see the measure through and present it to a tech-savvy audience that all he has succeeded in is to have given off an atmosphere of gimmickry not authority

  • Phil_Aterly

    Cameron, pointless stunt – is that rhyming slang? He is of course…………

  • Eddie

    Why ban porn? 1) you can’t; 2) it is indirect discrimination against men who use it most; 3) it assumes porn is bad and damaging, without evidence. Porn is honest anyway – it does what it says on the rim…er…tin….

    Far more damaging than that sort of porn – all harmless except the kiddie stuff which is rightly illegal and its makers are rightly chased too – is the emotional porn we get day in day out on our TV screens, the endless psychobabble and self-obsession and looks-obsessed celebrity culture. That appeals more to women, of course, so it is seen as sweetness and light – in contrast to the evil blackness of naughty stuff that appeals to boys. I think Dave’s been watching the Star Wars DVD a bit too much…

    Cameron is desperately trying to appeal to the woman’s vote (and women are always more puritanical, judgemental and conservative than men, and are against porn which they mostly don’t like or understand, what with their having girl brains and bodies…). Pathetic really. He’s making a fool of himself.

    And does anyone seriously think that the criminals, those who wish to access kiddie porn and harm children, look on Google for that sort of stuff? Utter nonsense. This new puritanism will not do anything to stop criminals or children getting harmed, and to argue or even suggest that it will is spurious and deceitful.

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