No, Mr Cameron, you can't solve porn with a hackathon

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has called on UK geeks to hold a "hackathon" to help him create a British version of Iran's "halal Internet" -- a network where kids can't see porn. In his call to action, he implies that the only reason nerds haven't done this is because they lack the sense of responsibility to have solved this problem (and not, say, because it is a technical nonsense). In a scathing rebuttal, Dr Georgina Voss explains to the hapless PM why a hackathon to end smut is a stupid idea, even by his government's standards.

Beyond the fact that to run an anti-pornography hack event would likely involve providing developers with extensive access to the very images (pdf) that the policy proposes to ban, technology community goodwill is also lacking. Technologists have called the plans "unworkable", potentially damaging to the UK web industry, and going after easy targets in the ISPs rather than tackling the real issues.

Take the false fronts that criminals install onto ATM machines to clone card details, for example. From one perspective they are a cracking form of user innovation, developed around specific needs and a lack of comparable products on the market; from another, they are a technology of organised crime. Illegality isn't necessarily a barrier to channelling user innovations into firms: several companies have harnessed "outlaw innovations" and repurposed them for their own, legitimised, ends.

User activities also don't need to be illegal to be considered aberrant by firms. When the Model T-Ford was first introduced in 1908 it was embraced and "modded" by rural farming communities. One Kansas farmer used the car as a stationary power source to run his household's washing machine; another, in Maine, found so many uses that the tax inspector didn't know whether to classify it as agricultural machinery or a "pleasure vehicle" (pdf). After early benevolent consideration of these activities, the Ford Motor Company decided to bring out their own line of trucks and tractors, and ordered their dealers not to supply the toolkits that would let users mod the automobile into cheaper versions of these machines, taking potential revenue away from the company.

An anti-porn hack day, Mr Cameron? Be careful what you wish for (Thanks, Dan!)

(Image: Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking at the opening of the GAVI Alliance immunisations pledging conference in London, June 13 2011, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dfid's photostream)