Over the weekend, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote an editorial touting the search engine's "new" efforts to battle child porn. It appeared in, of all places, the Daily Mail, presumably so the paper could write a self-congratulatory piece declaring its victory over Google (and child pornographers, too, I guess…)
What Schmidt details in his op-ed isn't really news at all, for the most part. Google has proactively blocked illegal images from appearing in search results for years now. It has also used human beings to help its algorithms filter illegal content, something which has an undeniable deleterious effect on those willing to do this horrific job. In fact, Schmidt points out as much.
That's why internet companies like Google and Microsoft have been working with law enforcement for years to stop paedophiles sharing illegal pictures on the web.
We actively remove child sexual abuse imagery from our services and immediately report abuse to the authorities. This evidence is regularly used to prosecute and convict criminals.
The pressure to do something "more" has stemmed from UK Prime Minister David Cameron's assault on the internet
in general. Cameron has successfully pushed through a plan that forces ISPs to filter porn out by default and, thanks to a couple of high profile child murders, has decided that search engines just aren't doing enough to keep child pornography away from those looking to view it. Google has always been the name thrown around
, even though Google has been actively working with child protection agencies to filter results by keywords and turn over information to local law enforcement agencies. So, a majority of Schmidt's op-ed is given over to explaining processes and tactics Google has had deployed for quite some time.
One thing Cameron asked for specifically
is now being implemented by Google.
We're now showing warnings – from both Google and charities – at the top of our search results for more than 13,000 queries. These alerts make clear that child sexual abuse is illegal and offer advice on where to get help.
Google is also lending its technical expertise to the Internet Watch Foundation and the US Center for Missing and Exploited Children in order to help them find victims and prosecute offenders.
All of these are generally good ideas, although the Mail's hurry to take credit for steps Google has implemented for years is rather unseemly. The key here is "generally." There's nothing wrong with what Google's doing other than a) child porn mostly travels below the "surface" and b) what little is there that's discoverable by Google's crawlers will now join the rest of it "underground." This may separate the truly stupid from illegal images but it will have little to no effect on the purveyors of child porn, who have stayed under the Google radar for years. If anything, it eliminates the "low hanging fruit," making law enforcement's efforts that much tougher
David Cameron seems to think this is a major victory as well -- a triumph of political muscle over internet architecture. He starts off with this unverifiable claim
'Google and Microsoft have come a long way,' Mr Cameron added. 'A recent deterrence campaign from Google led to a 20 per cent drop off in people trying to find illegal content, so we know this sort of action will make a difference.
'Both companies have made clear to me that they share my commitment to stop child abuse content from being available not only in the UK but across the world.
A 20% drop off means 20% of people seeking child porn are now using methods other than Google/Bing searches. That's about all that
means without an accompanying percentage increase in arrests and convictions. Blocking doesn't keep people from wanting the blocked content. It only pushes them to use other tactics.
Then Cameron makes this ridiculous/frightening statement.
'If the search engines are unable to deliver on their commitment to prevent child abuse material being returned from search terms used by paedophiles, I will bring forward legislation that will ensure it happens…
I believe we are heading in right direction but no-one should be in doubt that there is a red line: if more isn't done to stop illegal content or pathways being found when you use a child abuse search term, we will do what is necessary to protect our children.'
Cameron still wants to be the one to ultimately decide whether search engines are doing "enough" to block illegal images. No effort along these lines will ever be able to completely
block illegal images, so this legislation is all but inevitable. The fallacy here is that Cameron thinks legislation can
do what search engines can't
: provide 100% blocking. This falls in line with his thinking on "regular" porn blocking at the ISP level: an impossibility
made "possible" by government intervention.
Cameron chased this with more bad news. He's planning on bringing GCHQ (the UK's NSA) on board
to dig through the "dark net" for child pornographers.
"There's been a lot in the news recently about the techniques, ability and brilliance of the people involved in the intelligence community, in GCHQ and the NSA in America. That expertise is going to be brought to bear to go after these revolting people sharing these images [of child abuse] on the dark net, and making them available more widely," the prime minister said.
"You use technology which is able to get into the dark internet, that is able to decrypt encrypted files, and that is able to find out what is going on. Like all these things if you put in the resources and the effort, if you use the best brains – the brains that are, as it were, the inheritors to the people that decrypted the Enigma code in the second world war – if you take those brains, and apply it to the problem of tackling child abuse online, you'll get results.
"I'm confident, having sat in the cabinet room, listening to the internet service providers, and having listened to the national crime agency, having talked to the team that are going to be negotiating with the Americans to work out how we best bring our joint expertise to bear on this, I'm confident that we can make some real progress."
One would assume that's what the FBI and Scotland Yard are for. To call for the GHCQ and NSA to be given even more
unfettered access to internet communications is very disturbing, especially considering this exceeds both agencies' "national security" directives. Putting two agencies with incredible capabilities and little oversight on the trail of other criminals hidden in the "dark net" is a bad idea. Anyone who thinks the GCHQ/NSA troll for child pornographers will start and end with just
those criminals is delusional.
Once they're in there, it's a free-for-all. Suspects will be brought to trial only to find out the evidence against them can't be revealed
for "security" reasons, leaving them under-equipped to mount a credible defense. This would also play into the agencies' mindset that those utilizing privacy protections and encryption are "criminals/terrorists" because using either means they've got "something to hide." Giving these agencies the go-ahead to pursue something other than threats to national security is a terrible idea.
When asked about the potential for privacy violations that may occur if the GCHQ is allowed to run wild in the "dark net," Cameron responded with this non sequitur.
"[P]eople understand that a crime is a crime whether it's committed on the street or the internet".
I'm not really sure what Cameron's asserting here, other than the potential to uncover criminal activity outweighs any privacy concerns, whether on the the internet or in the street. This mentality explains the massive amount of cameras the UK government has deployed over the past decade. The NSA (and GCHQ) has made the same argument in terms of national security -- privacy violations are just the price citizens have to pay to be protected from terrorism. Here we see it being deployed (slightly reworded) to justify the expansion of the GCHQ's purview.
Google may be taking the "lead" in blocking child porn, but that's only because it's already been active in that area for years. Judging from the PM's past, it's hard to believe these latest efforts will ultimately satisfy Cameron. We can probably expect a legislated "solution" within the next few years, especially if the world provides a tragedy or two to capitalize on.