The prime minister used a major speech to set out a raft of reforms to protect children from "poisonous" pornography websites which, he said, were 'corroding childhood'.

 

London - David Cameron was in retreat on Monday from his plan to install automatic internet “porn filters” in every British home, after appearing to rule out “soft” and written pornography from the scheme entirely.

The British prime minister used a major speech to set out a raft of reforms to protect children from “poisonous” pornography websites which, he said, were “corroding childhood”.

He announced that internet service providers had agreed to introduce family-friendly filters which automatically block pornography unless customers choose to opt out.

But his proposals were criticised by anti-censorship groups, who warned that sites about sexual health and sexuality could get caught up in the ban. Significantly, Mr Cameron admitted there would be “problems down the line” with the system - and said that it would not apply to topless images such as those used on The Sun's Page 3.

At the same time a former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (Ceop), Jim Gamble, said Mr Cameron's plan to tackle child abuse images by removing results from search engines like Google would be “laughed at” by paedophiles. “There are 50 000 predators... downloading abusive images on peer-to-peer, not from Google,” he said. “Yet from Ceop intelligence only 192 were arrested last year. That's simply not good enough.

“We've got to attack the root cause, invest with new money - real investment in child-protection teams, victim support and policing on the ground. Let's create a real deterrent. Not a pop-up that paedophiles will laugh at.”

Mr Cameron laid out a multi-pronged approach to tackle the proliferation of both legal and illegal pornography on the internet, saying that the problem was “too big to ignore”. Under his proposals, by the end of next year all households will automatically be “opted in” to porn filters, which would come as standard with internet broadband and cover all devices in a house. Possession of the most extreme forms of adult pornography will become an offence, while online content will have the same restrictions as DVDs sold in sex shops.

To tackle child-abuse images, search engines have been told they will have to redact results from specific searches. Anyone accessing websites shut down by the police for containing such images will see a message warning them that what they are doing is illegal.

But in interviews after his speech, Mr Cameron seemed unclear of exactly which legal sites should be banned by the new filters - and accepted that the technology still had weaknesses.

Speaking on the BBC's Jeremy Vine radio programme, Mr Cameron said what would be included in the filters would evolve over time. “The companies themselves are going to design what is automatically blocked, but the assumption is they will start with blocking pornographic sites and also perhaps self-harming sites,” he said.

“It will depend on how the companies choose to do it. It doesn't mean, for instance, it will block access to a newspaper like The Sun - but it would block pornography.” Mr Cameron did not “believe” written pornography, such as the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, would be blocked. But he added: “It will depend on how the filters work.”

He also admitted it could lead to some interesting conversations in families. Asked if the system meant a husband would have to “fess up” to his partner if he wanted to look at porn, he finally said: “Yes, it does.”

He then added: “I'm not saying we've thought of everything and there will be many problems down the line as we deal with this, but we're trying to crunch through these problems and work out what you can do and can't do.”

But others were critical of such a “nanny state” intervention. Daniel Foster, founder of web hosting company 34SP, said: “To say that pornography is 'corroding childhood' is extreme. Having criticised the previous government for operating a nanny state, this reeks of hypocrisy.

“The fact that there is plenty of widely adopted filtering software readily available means internet users are already acting autonomously in policing content in their homes.”

Mr Cameron was even attacked by one of his former female MPs, Louise Mensch, for attempting to ban videos containing rape simulation. She suggested such fantasies were common in more than half of all women. “It is not for our Government to police consensual simulation, between adults, of one of women's most common fantasies,” she wrote on Twitter.

Padraig Reidy, of the Index on Censorship, said people should not have to opt out of the filters. “If we have, as the Prime Minister is suggesting, an opt-out filter we have a kind of default censorship in place,” he said.

“Families should be able to choose if they want to opt in to censorship. If a filter is set up as a default it can restrict what people can see legitimately. Sites about sexual health will get caught up in the same filters as pornography. It will restrict people's experience on the web, including children's.”

Dr Paul Bernal, from the University of East Anglia's law school, suggested Mr Cameron's crackdown on child abuse images was also inadequate. “The real 'bad guys' will find ways around them, the material will still exist, will keep being created, and we'll pretend to have solved the problem.”

- The Independent