Another pantomimic skit in the bathetic spectacle that is the Labour conference.

Harriet Harman today urged movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to “terminate” a website which allows people to rate prostitutes.

The Labour deputy leader told delegates at the Labour conference: “There is now a website… where pimps put women on sale for sex and then men who’ve had sex with them put their comments online. It is PunterNet and fuels the demand for prostitutes.”

Harman said the site was based in California but had “pages and pages” of women for sale in London.

“I’ve raised it with the US ambassador to London and I’ve called on California’s governor, Arnie Schwarzenegger, to close it down.”

Harman said it should not be difficult for the star to “terminate PunterNet”.

“And I’ve got news for him: if he doesn’t, I’ll be back,” she quipped.

BOOM BOOM! Yes, what a hilaaaarious subject! Tell us that one again, Hatty!

Ok, so it was like this.

I was on the internet checking out Prestwich, where we have, subsequent to said checking, bought a house (hooray!). I’d done the usual local paper trawl, checked out Yell for delis, cafes, libraries, restaurants, pubs and the like (no decent real ale pub = minus 4 points, but almost compensated by presence of M&S Simply Food = plus 3), battled with the extraordinary stratification of Bury Council’s website, played with Acorn ratings on Upmystreet, zoomed around the crime maps on Fixmystreet (are you keeping up?) and I was now googling various significant word combinations (“horrible hideous crime fire rubbish terrible filth zombie gin palace yob Tory council Prestwich”).

One such combination turned up the sliver of dubious intelligence that there is a stretch of Bury Old Road, the north-south main road that bounds Prestwich to the east, that is known to be the local punter’s mile. Now, clearly the local punter’s mile has got to be somewhere, but were we talking about a few houses or a notorious wasteland where I might fear to tread after dark? It was germane because the tram stop I would use to get into central Manchester is on Bury Old Road.

So I googled further into the unlovely bowels of cyberspace, and ended up on, yes, Punternet (and I’m not linking because despite the sympathetic hearing I am about to give it, there are limits). Punternet is, I don’t know how else to put this, a gobsmackingly weird place to be for a sheltered gel like me. The jargon, the atmosphere, the underlying assumptions are all framed in the same terms as the contributions to TopTable or Fancy a Pint, except that these were  human beings rather than the cask ales being critiqued. No, that’s not quite right – not Fancy a Pint. It’s a little weirder than that.  It was exactly like trawling through the reviews of model railway enthusiasts.

So, not the most salubrious-feeling place on the internet, and, as you might guess from the model railway analogy, the contributions of the punters are generally permeated by a certain damp, sad sense of inadequacy and poor communication skills. But what I took away – what, perhaps, I chose to take away – was the emphasis on information-sharing in the interests of legal, mutually satisfactory dealings.

This is what it says on the front page:

This web site deals only with lawful activities involving consenting adults. Neither this site, nor any of its members or advertisers, are doing anything which is illegal under UK law. Nothing in this site should be construed as inducement to engage in any illegal acts. This webmaster will cooperate fully with the authorities in any matter regarding under-age persons or those forced to work against their will.

And then inside, it says this:

This web site aims to promote better understanding between customers and ladies in hopes that everyone may benefit, with less stressful, more enjoyable and mutually respectful visits

Now, it’s not altogether clear to me how said benefits accrue to said ladies as a result of being reviewed on the internet, and the fact that they don’t seem to contribute  back suggests they are as puzzled about this as I am. That’s typical bloody men on the internet for you. But then when you get on to the “Field reports” (see what I mean about model railway enthusiasts?) page, it says this:

Have you been offered an underage girl?
Do you suspect that a girl you have seen is being forced to work against her will?

Report child prostitution and sex slavery – ring Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111

You, the punters, CAN make a difference – Click here for a short film from Crimestoppers about trafficking

At the very least, we  should concede that there is a self-policing element intrinsic in the aims of this site. The moral majority here do not appear to want to be offered underage girls, or women who are working against their will. The site owner is quite open about the fact that he will co-operate with the police in such matters. The police, I imagine, watch the site.

In short, though it’s not immediately obvious how this site makes the lives of prostitutes as a whole any better, it’s certainly not obvious how it makes them worse, and it may even make the odd life here or there quite dramatically better if and when the police do have occasion to intervene on the basis of information they read there.

This being the case, since no harm is being done and possibly a small amount of good may be being done, Harman’s posturing completely and comprehensively fails the liberal test. Imagine our universal surprise. (She also seems slightly misled about how the site is run. The owner claims to be an ordinary punter himself, and provides a classified ads section for the pimps, but the “field reports” are in a forum format and don’t appear to have anything to do with pimps.)

So the only question left turns on the legality of what Harman is demanding should happen. I have no idea whether the Governor of California has the authority to  shut down a website that isn’t breaking any law, but I do reckon that California is the single worst place in the world for a politician to try getting heavy-handed with the internet. Harman has not, as some wise soul points out on the comments to the Guardian piece, cited a law, either English or American, that the site has broken. She just wants it closed because she doesn’t like it.

Of course, I don’t much like Punternet either. That’s why I haven’t linked to it. Would I feel more comfortable if it weren’t on the internet? You betcha. But decisions  like that shouldn’t get made on the basis that sheltered gels like me and Harriet don’t much like seeing the evidence of prostitution. Closing down or banning something that does no harm and may do a small amount of good is a daft idea. In fact, if it means that women like me don’t ever run up against evidence of prostitution, it’s an extraordinarily counter-productive idea.

But then, Harman isn’t really and has never been on the side of women. She is actually, like all small- and big-c conservatives, on the side of the curtain-twitching classes.

Oooh, update: I take it back about the women not contributing back. They do, just not on the reviews. There are plenty of them on the forum (all currently highly indignant about Harman). H/t Paul Waugh.