Andy Burnham – in ur internetz, classifyin ur sitez

In the quietness of the holiday season, the Secretary of State for Culture, Andy Burnham has come forth with plans to age-certify the web like is currently done with films and DVDs. Coming in wake of the IWF’s horribly misguided attempt to block Wikipedia, this is another hamfisted approach to regulating the Internet as if it were old media that solves very little.

So what will it look like? It certainly won’t look like a BBFC for the web: First there’s questions of scale: the total number of sites (not counting subdomains) alone is around 156 million, while the Google index is in the billions of individual pages and there may be up to a trillion unique URLs on the web. Compared to the 639 films and 11,439 videos and DVDs that the BBFC classified in 2008, that’s more than just a few orders of magnitude. No human-oriented solution would be able to get the job done – it’ll face a hard enough job coping with the 120,000 blogs created every day. So any such system will be automated.

Secondly of course, there’s the international dimension. How is a site in Russia or Tuvalu going to be compelled to undergo certification by a UK body? Answer: none at all. So the idea of a website being clearly labelled “PG” or “18” like a DVD is can go right out of the window – expect it all to be done on the ISP level as it comes into the UK, filtered as you access the site.

Oddly enough, automated filtering like this has existed for years, in corporate firewalls and software specifically targeted at parents such as CyberPatrol and NetNanny. You pay for a licence and it monitors what comes in and out, a bit like a virus scanner, for specific keywords or pictures that might look like nudity. These are hideously imperfect and have their faults by being too over-zealous – how do you prevent filtering out of information about sex education, or other health issues such as breast cancer, for example? But an imperfect solution is better than none for some parents, so why not fork out on the software if you’re worried about your kids, and leave the rest of us be?

Censorship of legal but possibly offensive material in this way is a private, not a public, good – most of us are adults and want our access unfettered. But rather than just tell parents to buy a copy of censorware and install, Burnham wants ISPs to spend millions at the network level to implement it. This is a fairly idiotic waste of money, but then the more you look at what Burnham says, it’s clear he hasn’t got a full grasp of facts on the issue:

Mr Burnham said: ?If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn?t reach.”

This is utter bollocks. If you’re talking about the ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, it was created by the United States Department of Defense. Burnham is probably thinking of John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, with its famous quote:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

But this was written in 1996, long after the Internet had taken hold; Barlow was not a creator of the Internet, far from it, instead while the TCP/IP protocol was being proposed and the early Internet assembled, he was writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead. Back to Burnham:

I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It?s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

Libel online is an emerging issue? The first Internet libel case, Godfrey v. Demon Internet was over eleven years ago (and a dangerous precedent it set too). It has since been clear with cases such as the Alisher Usmanov blog silencing that like all libel cases, the plaintiff has an unfair advantage. Far from being lawless, it’s all too easy for the rich and powerful to silence anything online that is in the UK’s jurisdiction.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

Categorical as he likes to be, Burnham burbles over what exact content should not be available, or to whom – is he still talking about child protection here or is he going further? Far from being clear about it he’s muddying the water, starting off by talking about child protection but now touching on the wider issues of freedom of speech and what content can be seen by anyone.

?It worries me – like anybody with children,? he says. ?Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.”

Well then don’t do it. Supervise your own bloody kids. Or cough up for some supervisory software. Or learn about what’s out there and talk to them about it first.

?I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,? he said. ?More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place??

Actually most sites children use online (such as Bebo, Habbo or MySpace) have quite clear and helpful parental advice sections which if he took the time to read, could be quite edifying.

“This isn?t about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven?t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around?what can be a very, very complex and quite dangerous world.?

You could start with yourself, minister. This bit tickles me the most:

He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama?s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

Given how web-savvy the Obama administration is, I expect their response to be mostly along the lines of “WTF?”.

So, in conclusion, the minister for fun doesn’t really have much of a clue – all he knows is there is a problem of some sort and he must be seen to be doing something about it. And the truth is there are already plenty of cheap software solutions, which flawed as they may be, offer a quick fix to the problem. But rather than tell people to fork out themselves, it will eventually cost all Internet users both money and convenience.

A better solution is to not let kids go online alone without educating yourself about what sites are good and what child protection policies they have, talking to your kids about it and showing them how to use the web safely. But in this government’s bizarre world, telling parents how to bring up their kids would be seen as nannying and intrusive, while quietly classifying & censoring everything they download is nothing more than a matter of course.

Extra: John has some extra good points over at Sore Eyes while Tom Watson MP is clever enough to open up discussion to everyone on his blog, with a promise he’ll feed them back to Burnham. Now there’s Government 2.0 for you.

And a bit more: Alex has an excellent rant – although I don’t quite agree with him it’s purely a class-based thing, the English-language bit is an excellent point I hadn’t picked up on. Terence meanwhile argues it’s merely the fear of the new and unknown. Finally – Richard Clayton has a rather excellent summary of the problems with age ratings and content filtering.

14 thoughts on “Andy Burnham – in ur internetz, classifyin ur sitez

  1. An excellent post, and I’m struggling to add something without swerving into a political tirade. However, who the fuck does Burnham think he is? The lord of the Internet? The keeper of information for the (english-speaking) world? No, he is not.

    This recent idiocy seems to be part of a current labour campaign to say stupid things about the Internet. Jacqui Smith wants to record our every thought and keystroke (no innuendo intended) and Hazel Blears is cowering behind her wireless afraid of the Nihilistic nature of blogging and the Internet. Burnham has simply penned his name next to a list of stupid people who don’t understand life past 1990.

    Tom Watson has addressed the situation excellently; put it to the community and try and affect change.

    An excellent post Chris, thank you.

  2. See also Australia’s hilariously misinformed attempt to censor the web.

    Unlike – I assume – nearly everyone else reading your post, I don’t see this as an attempt by the G’ment to restrict free speech (although that is a side effect.) Governments, the police, intellectual property rights holders, the security forces et al. will always be threatened by the internet for the very simple reason that lots of bad stuff happens here, and lots of bad stuff that happens in the real world is facilitated by the internet.

    We can argue with some degree of reason that the internet is “just another communications technology” (although personally I suspect it’s more than that) and that we “wouldn’t censor the telephone, the presses, or the pen.”

    But that, I think, may be a weak argument. The other technologies are all somehow different. They are centralized and licensed. They can be monitored. They aren’t as “anonymous” or as scale-free and geography-free.

    Without disagreeing with you that he’s an idiot, I think there’s a seed of an argument on Burnham’s side – particularly as more and more video moves online, and more and more people (me for instance) only ever watch web video (I own no TV.) You can see problems coming. Is this really as black and white as it seems?

  3. Mat – I don’t think the pen, or even the printing press, are as centralised and licensed as you make out to be – after all, anonymous & pseudonymous pampleteering was rife in days gone by.

    I think my worry comes when he starts saying: “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical.” – which comes with no caveats. It is confusing the problem of discretion with respect to what children see, and what, legally, anyone should be allowed to see. The former is a matter for parents – the same as whether they think their kids should stay up beyond 9pm watching TV, or playing violent video games – and is quite a wide remit. The latter is a matter of law and public policy and has a very narrow remit (what is undesirable is not necessarily illegal, nor should it be). Hence my worry about a slippery slope.

    Your point on video is a good one, and highlights how video particularly is incredibly hard to enforce – text filters alone are useless. Even YouTube’s filtering software (which fingerprints videos & matches against a database) can’t catch risque content posted there, let alone illegal. YouTube crowdsources its ratings – ordinary users can flag a video as being unsuitable for minors, or undesirable which is a clever (if possibly gameable) way of doing such things. I bet an ISP-enforced ratings system will be far cruder and just mark anything with a URL as possibly unsuitable, rather than on a per-video basis.

  4. The distinction is class. Books, the theatre, newspapers: signifiers of Cultural Capital. Movies, the telly: Prolefeed, and they better stay that way. Computerthingy: THINKFAIL INVENTED AFTER 1950!!! Strange, it’s made of words (good) but it’s got typewriters like my secretary (bad).

    (BTW: Why the fuck have I got to provide a name and e-mail when I’ve been authenticated by OpenID?)

  5. Alex – wasn’t theatre regularly censored until 1968? And newspaper censorship continues to this day with such things as D-notices and secret injunctions.

    As for openID problems – will look into it. I haven’t had any problems, but then my openID server is :)

    Update: Should be working now, sorry for the inconvenience.

  6. Well done for highlighting something serious which could have slipped under the radar at this time of Celebrity Mr & Mrs and Olympic Medal Winners’ Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

    Just another example of Brown and his idiotic cronies desperately trying to appeal to the Sun/Mail reading masses they’re so shit scared of. I don’t for a second believe that Andy Burnham (or Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears, Phil Woolas – I could go on) knows – or even less, cares – what the hell he’s talking about. If only there was some way of blocking the ‘content’ that these tossers come out with…

  7. Matt, if some one blows up a building what difference does it make if they communicate with their accomplices through email or pen and paper mail?

    This interview was the scariest thing I’ve ever read.

    Might be nice if Mr Burnham had some letters waiting for him when he goes back to work.

    His contact details are here

  8. Really nice and comprehensive post…

    Interestingly, I’ve just been reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, and had got to the chapter discussing how the ‘flattening of the world’ due to globalisation and communication has been used for good and bad, including for terrorism – and how a dogmatic following of certain beliefs without question is one of the main reasons for those beliefs leading to a frustration which can then lead to terrorism (paraphrasing a fair bit!)

    The only regime that has a reasonable chance of making something like this work is China, and while we could probably learn a lot from their economic reform and growth, I’m not sure we should be using them as a model for internet regulation.

  9. Add in the fact that new laws are also making it more acceptable for police to remote access computers, and I’m fairly sure I won’t be voting Labour again!

    We have to admit it’s incredibly easy to stumble across things which may be offensive, but that’s a reason to improve filters like Net Nanny and Cyber Patrol for those who want to use them, or educate more people about making sure they’ve got ‘Safe Search’ enabled on Google, or that they haven’t let their PC get infected with Malware.

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