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Monday, November 18, 2013 

An invented victory over an invented threat.

"Stunning victory for Mail campaign", screams the eponymous newspaper's front page.  "GOOGLE BLOCK ON CHILD PORN", it goes on, while David Cameron says that Google and Yahoo have "come a long way" following his speech earlier in the year calling for action.  You could easily be fooled into thinking that with one stroke, the major search engines have dealt a critical blow against the depraved and evil people sharing child abuse images and videos online.  Cameron says there's more to be done, and there's the little matter of p2p sharing and the "dark net", but Claire Perry's pleased and the Mail is similarly delighted, so clearly the pressure has worked, right?

Well, sort of.  Read the reports a little closer, and it instead becomes fairly apparent that Google has reacted to the demands of the ignorant by making it look as though they've done more than they actually have.  In his piece for the Mail, the executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt talks of how the results for 100,000 queries "that might be related to the sexual abuse of kids" have been cleaned up, while the BBC reports how the new algorithms "will prevent searches for child abuse imagery delivering results that could lead to such material".  In other words, there is absolutely nothing to say that any one of those 100,000 search terms did lead to such material in the first place, or that all of those queries had been used by someone looking for abusive images.  It's worth remembering that despite all the ravings of the Mail and friends in June and July, not a single journo claimed to have been able to access child pornography (and no, calling it child pornography does not legitimise it, unless you're too stupid to understand the nuances of the English language) through using just Google or any other search engine, although we did have Amanda Platell tell us that a professionally shot adult scene featuring an 19-year-old was in fact child abuse.  Charles Arthur wonders why it took Google so long to do this; the reason, apparently enough, is that it didn't really need to.

Nor has Cameron's other key demand from his speech, that there are some search terms so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all become a reality.  Instead, Google has put warnings from both themselves and charities at the top of the pages for around 13,000 results.  The implication is that none of these search terms returned material either, but again, it looks as if they've given in to pressure to do something, however futile.  Where the furore does seem to have resulted in some real action is it looks as though Google has developed a video equivalent of Microsoft's PhotoDNA, where pictures can be traced even if they're resized or the colours altered.  This again however isn't going to make much difference when neither photos or videos of child abuse are much shared on YouTube or the main social networking sites.

The real question to ask might be just how counter-productive this debate by megaphone has been.  Cameron reckons a Google deterrence campaign "led to a 20% drop off in people trying to find illegal content", yet apparently puts this down as a success rather than wondering whether it in fact means they went elsewhere.  This entire episode has been defined by ignorance, and it's not necessarily a good thing that a lot more people now know about Tor or the other "dark nets" than they did previously.  Cameron says he's going to sic GCHQ onto them, and while it's somewhat reassuring that previously the NSA and GCHQ failed to crack Tor, it's clearly possible they could break it, endangering those who do use it to evade the surveillance of authoritarian states. 

All that's likely to have been achieved by Google etc humouring the government and the Mail is a few of the more boneheaded perverts being told by their computers they need help, while doing nothing to help those in the clutches of the abusers.  Politicians and newspapers trying to make complicated and intractable problems look easily solvable while making them the responsibility of others? Who woulda thunk it?

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