What was missing from Ed Miliband’s address to the Google Big Tent event today?
By most accounts he gave a fairly prosaic speech. Miliband praised the internet for breaking down old hierarchies, but then warned it could create its own new monopolies. He applauded the advent of the digital age for levelling the playing field for new businesses, but then lamented the low rates of digital literacy that prevent people from making the most of these new opportunities. It was easy to tell that the whole thing was geared towards the W-moment - explicitly telling Google and Eric Schmidt that it was 'wrong' they did not pay their fair share of taxes.
You could argue he should have said more about the capacity of new technologies to overcome our biggest social challenges – namely dementia and other issues associated with an ageing population. You might also say he should have gone further with his important point about teaching our young people to create, not just consume digital products. Yet still, there isn’t much contention here.
No, the most important thing Miliband failed to mention today was the P-word: pornography. Explicit material - once the preserve of shady outlets and the top-shelves of newsagents - has become ubiquitous since the advent of the internet. All a person now needs is a decent connection and a computer - and many young people have exactly that. In a sign of how easy it has become to find such material, research by the security firm Bitdefender found that 1.16 per cent of children had accessed pornography by the age of 6.
The harmful effects of exposure to pornography have been well documented. The Internet Watch Foundation points out that close to 70 per cent of people are disturbed by violent or extreme pornography. Yet the effects of exposure to explicit material go much further than making people feel squeamish or awkward. A recent parliamentary inquiry, for example, noted that young men are now receiving the majority of their sex ‘education’ from pornography, which in turn means it becomes more difficult to promote the use of condoms.
Other research suggests that pornography can damage personal relationships because it gives people unusually high expectations of their sex lives. Only last week, Diane Abbott suggested that the proliferation of pornographic material had been one factor in precipitating a “crisis of masculinity" and a "Jack Daniels and viagra" culture among young men.
What is perhaps more cause for concern than young people watching pornography is them creating it themselves - I genuinely believe this is one of the biggest challenges facing UK society. Research undertaken by NSPCC has indicated that as many of 40 per cent of young people have been involved in sending explicit pictures of themselves and their peers. The problem is particularly problematic for teenage girls, many of whom face pressure from their friends and classmates to join in.
The scale of the challenge is such that the Prime Minister himself waded into the debate, recently describing the problem as “a silent attack on innocence.” The government has matched these concerns with several proposals to limit young people’s access to harmful material, including by working with computer manufacturers so that parents are prompted to restrict access to ban certain sites when turning on new devices for the first time. Others in the business sector have been less forthcoming in their support of such proposals. Google, for instance, decided against implementing an automatic ‘opt-out’ of pornographic websites, in part because it may unintended block innocuous ones.
Time will tell whether moves like these will yield any kind of impact. Whatever the result, the efforts are to be commended. The seriousness of the issue is such that we need as many imaginative solutions as we can get. Indeed, to return to the topic of Ed Miliband's speech, the issue of tax avoidance doesn’t really compare to it. One is a manifestation of a society that is becoming less empathetic, the other is potentially one of its biggest causes. While Ed Miliband may feel proud of himself for calling out the big corporate guns on their practices, even more courageous would be to get to grips with the taboo subject that is doing the real damage to our society.