The peril facing Britain is that the media is evolving, and the protections which have ensured a free press for 300 years is not evolving with it. Before entering politics, the Prime Minister worked for Carlton Communications as its PR chief, becoming a master of the murky terrain between media and government. Having failed to regulate the newspapers, he is now trying his luck with internet companies. But government cannot be trusted with the internet any more than it can be trusted to license the press, as the leaked letter shows. Internet search engines, just like the newspapers, should not dance to a tune called by politicians. They ought to be regarded as part of the free press and kept far apart from government — not for their own benefit, but for the protection of the public.
The problem of internet pornography – both legal and illegal – is worldwide. Yet Britain is the only country in the free world where the government is using pornography as an excuse to give itself power over internet search engines. Cameron’s threat to Google – that it must do what he wants with search engine terms or face legislation – sets a dangerous precedent. After pornography, then what? National security? It is nonsense to claim that free press protection should not cover search engines. They have supplanted newspapers as they way in which most people go to find out information. The Chinese government is fully aware of the power of search engines, which is why ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ does not return any results.
The newspapers may not rush to defend Google, seeing as its search engine now provides for free the news that people used to pay for. It is odd to think that Google needs defending at all: if information is power, then Google is one of the most powerful organisations in the world. That is deeply disconcerting. But the idea of an alliance between Google and government – whether informal, or enforced by statute – is more disconcerting still.