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Leading article

Google is part of the free press. So hands off, Prime Minister

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

It is not quite clear what Google did to David Cameron, but the Prime Minister seems to be exacting some sort of revenge. First, he wanted them to keep records of their customers’ emails just in case his officials wanted to snoop later. Now he wants the British government to be the first in the free world to censor internet search results. The causes he invokes are undoubtedly popular ones: confronting terrorists, for example, and thwarting pornographers. But it is precisely in moments of populist outrage that liberties are sacrificed — and only later do we realise what we have lost.

The digital age is bewildering for governments, especially those not constrained by a constitution. How to respond to the explosion of ways in which citizens can express themselves? In Britain, our bias towards free speech — has been supplanted by the post-Enlightenment notion of ‘hate crime’. The police now investigate what people say, not just what they do. In England, officers of the law can knock on the doors of teenagers who post drivel on Twitter or (as was the case in Kent) post a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook on Armistice Day.

Political correctness has morphed into law, and now supplants the sensible principle that the citizen should only be punished for speech inciting murder, arson or another genuine crime — urging on an angry mob, for instance. Instead, we have allowed the authorities to hound people for their ideas — ideas that, while they may well be repugnant, do not directly provoke criminal offences.

Now the Prime Minister wants to extend censorship to internet pornography, and the same fuzziness of purpose is evident. Child pornography is already illegal, and its access should be blocked by all search engines. Few object to stopping teenage boys accessing online porn sites – although how the Prime Minister intends to achieve this worthy aim is a question that baffles anyone who is internet literate. Mr Cameron goes from saying that pornography is reprehensible (which it is) to implying that looking at it leads to crime (which it doesn’t). Generations of psychologists have failed to find any link, which is why it has been allowed to fill top shelves in newsagents across Britain.

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As soon as government gives itself new powers, the abuse of those powers soon follows. So it is to Mr Cameron’s credit that he has given himself until October to decide whether to award his government the authority to interfere with search engines. There is time for everyone to calm down. He has earned himself praise in the Daily Mail (which was published online next to a sidebar of six girls in various stages of undress), but those who deal with the worst cases of online exploitation are not convinced: Google, they say, is not the problem. And the measures proposed would not affect the estimated 50,000 predators who do trawl the darker reaches of the internet.

On a purely technical point, the Prime Minister can only control google.co.uk. He has no powers over google.com, and it is not beyond the wit of a criminal to switch. Paedophiles tend not to type incriminating phrases into search engines. Almost everything we search for is stored for ever — and search histories are frequently used in criminal trials. Google’s notorious appetite for information about their customers means its services are usually avoided by people with something serious to hide.

There is indeed a deep and worrying problem with the internet — but it exists on what’s called the ‘darknet’: a vast online sewer which is untraceable and seemingly impossible to shut down. The US government has tried and failed to close the drugs and weapons stores, which run on a private network originally developed by the Pentagon’s Naval Research Laboratory. This is the real black market: a world in which hackers, criminals and drug dealers (and dissidents in authoritarian regimes) liaise with each other in defiance of the law. This vast virtual underworld is as distinct from Google as backstreet drug dealers are from Boots.

So why go after Google? Because this is all about what the government can be seen to be doing, not what it can actually do. This was demonstrated in an extraordinary leaked letter, sent by the Department for Education, asking internet providers to mislead their customers. The companies are all planning to install family filters anyway, because millions of parents had demanded them. But the Prime Minister wanted to pretend this was his idea — so could they please play along? And by the way, could they also contribute to his unannounced campaign for ‘parental awareness’? ‘I know that it will be challenging for you to commit to an unknown campaign,’ wrote the official, politely.

The peril facing Britain is that the media is evolving, and the protections which have ensured a free press for 300 years is not evolving with it. Before entering politics, the Prime Minister worked for Carlton Communications as its PR chief, becoming a master of the murky terrain between media and government. Having failed to regulate the newspapers, he is now trying his  luck with internet companies. But government cannot be trusted with the internet any more than it can be trusted to license the press, as the leaked letter shows. Internet search engines, just like the newspapers, should not dance to a tune called by politicians. They ought to be regarded as part of the free press and kept far apart from government — not for their own benefit, but for the protection of the public.

The problem of internet pornography – both legal and illegal – is worldwide. Yet Britain is the only country in the free world where the government is using pornography as an excuse to give itself power over internet search engines. Cameron’s threat to Google – that it must do what he wants with search engine terms or face legislation – sets a dangerous precedent. After pornography, then what? National security? It is nonsense to claim that free press protection should not cover search engines. They have supplanted newspapers as they way in which most people go to find out information. The Chinese government is fully aware of the power of search engines, which is why ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ does not return any results.

The newspapers may not rush to defend Google, seeing as its search engine now provides for free the news that people used to pay for. It is odd to think that Google needs defending at all: if information is power, then Google is one of the most powerful organisations in the world. That is deeply disconcerting. But the idea of an alliance between Google and government – whether informal, or enforced by statute – is more disconcerting still.

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