UK Prime Minister David Cameron has given Google, Yahoo, Bing an ultimatum: Ban a list of keywords the government has marked as abusive toward children by October or the government will consider passing laws to force the issue.
In a speech, Cameron said the Internet is not just where we buy, sell and socialize -- it is where crimes happen and where people can get hurt and where children and young people learn about the world, each other, and themselves. As he sees it, the growth of the Internet has brought challenges to protecting children to the fore.
"The first challenge is criminal: and that is the proliferation and accessibility of child abuse images on the Internet," Cameron said. "The second challenge is cultural: the fact that many children are viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very young age and that the nature of that pornography is so extreme, it is distorting their view of sex and relationships."
Google's 'Moral Duty'
Cameron aims to tackle child abuse images online from every possible angle, from where they're hosted to where they're transmitted, viewed and downloaded. He pointed to some victories by the police and Child Exploitation and Online Protection center, but he wants the government to do more. Part of that depends on the cooperation of search engines.
"Here in Britain, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are already actively engaged on a major campaign to deter people who are searching for child abuse images," Cameron said. "I cannot go into detail about this campaign, because that would undermine its effectiveness but I can tell you it is robust, it is hard-hitting, and it is a serious deterrent to people looking for these images."
But, again, Cameron wants more. He specifically called for a scenario where people cannot search for child abuse images. He plans to make that a reality, in part, by creating a list of terms that will not offer up direct search results. Cameron said it's the moral duty of the search engines to act on this request.
"If in October we don't like the answer we're given to this question, if the progress is slow or non-existent then I can tell you we are already looking at the legislative options we have to force action. And there's a further message I have for the search engines," he said. "If there are technical obstacles to acting on this, don't just stand by and say nothing can be done; use your great brains to help overcome them."
Censorship or Not?
We turned to Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, for his reaction to Cameron's speech. He told us Cameron's rhetoric was very strong, but he thinks his underlying point is valid: Find better ways to keep kids under 18 away from online porn.
"Some will see this as censorship but most reasonable people will agree with this objective. The challenge is how to accomplish this. The other question of child pornography and abusive images of kids online is not in dispute. This is criminal content that should be prosecuted," Sterling said.
"There are probably ways for the industry to come together and establish standards and rules that create more effective barriers to underage discovery of pornography online," he added. "This may help start that initiative."