THE BLOG

Why Vince Cable Is Wrong About Content Policing

13/06/2013 15:41 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 10:12 BST

There's no doubt that there is plenty of undesirable and in many cases illegal content on the internet. A glut of predictable knee-jerk responses from media and political pundits has followed what is indisputably the biggest exposure of paedophilia and its perpetrators the UK has ever seen.

It is both right and proper that stringent measures should be put in place to put an end to child pornography online. But Vince Cable's reactionary plan for Google and other search engines to police content in the wake of the convictions of Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell is at best oversimplifying a very complex issue and at worst, a cynical ploy to absolve the coalition government of any immediate responsibility.

Let's address the publishing and hosting of content. Web hosting companies, who store and transmit material, do so on behalf of their customers. They do not filter that content and are simply unable to examine every piece of data that they hold. It has long been the case that if illegal content is found and a host is informed of this, they must react in a timely fashion and remove the content, possibly providing logs of how the content was put there in the first place to the authorities.

Put simply, Cable's comments are misguided: Google, Yahoo and other search engines do not host content. They regularly examine content on the internet and provide an index to that content. Much like hosts and search engines, Google et al react to complaints about material in their index and remove it where appropriate. This does not, however, remove the content's availability, and can only be resolved by making contact with the relevant web host.

Mr. Cable's assertion that "getting the companies that host these sites, Google and the rest of it, to be more proactive in policing (internet content)" is similarly simplistic.

But it seems that not everyone in Parliament shares Cable's unconsidered attitude to internet regulation. The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, recently spoke with candour about the burden of responsibility for policing internet content. He concluded that while search engines and social networks such as Twitter ought to exercise common sense, it is ultimately not up to them to act as web police. They must simply ensure that they obey the law of the land.

Furthermore, Grieve warned that extreme regulation of the world wide web could impinge upon basic civil liberties.

And if you think Grieve's 'common sense' approach lacks substance, you'd be wrong. He has fully endorsed some very practical suggestions which came from MPs and peers that privacy injunctions should be served more readily on all avenues of media, including internet companies, newspapers and broadcasters.

The crux of the matter is that policing requires resources and in a difficult and competitive industry such as web hosting, the resources are simply not there to take on a role that should rightly be performed by the police.

Nobody is denying the facts - the internet does need policing, and the best people to conduct these operations are the police.