British government look at age ratings for Web sites

December 27, 2008

The Internet has grown into a sprawling mass of Web sites on every topic you’d care to mention. Which is why we here at Blorge have tried to make it easier for you with our Top 100 list. But should those sites be censored, age-rated, and only available to some people? The British government thinks so.

Let there be no bones about it, if you want to view a site on something (anything) on the Web, you can find it with enough searching and common sense. But while that’s considered a good if not great thing by most people, assuming you stay within the confines of the law, governments around the world seem to be becoming scared by the lack of power they exert over the content on the Web.

China has already made concerted efforts to stop its citizens from accessing sites it deems unsuitable. The Great Wall Of China is now being mimicked by Australia with 1,300 sites now being blocked from viewing by anyone. The British government doesn’t want to be left behind in this authoritative push to start controlling the Internet.

Today saw the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, trying to make a name for himself by calling for controls to be placed on Web content. In an interview with The London Telegraph, he described the Internet as “quite a dangerous place” before describing some possible measures to counter the horrors of the Web.

Burnham thinks Web sites should be given movie-style ratings, with individual sites classified in accordance with their content. He also wants to force ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to deny access to Web sites which don’t have an officially sanctioned age rating. And he intends to ask incoming President, Barack Obama, to help him in this quest.

He 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. 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.

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.

While I can see the need for children to be protected from some content on the Web, surely that’s the job of the parents and caregivers rather than ISPs and the government. As for adults, surely we should be allowed to view whatever we damn well like, as long as its legal. That is the essence of free speech, and as much as Burnham denies it, any move such as this would be going against that ideal.

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One Response to “British government look at age ratings for Web sites”

  1. Alastair Scott:

    The man is clearly badly informed – I put it politely – because (quite apart from the actual proposal):

    1. The Internet was _invented_ by an arm of the US Government (and controlled by it for a long time);

    2. Libel is not an “emerging issue”; libellous comments have been part of the Internet landscape for as far back as I remember (almost 15 years), and there has been nothing stopping libel suits using existing law. Here we go again – proposing laws which overlap existing laws to give the impression of doing something.

    In his defence, there was a radio interview yesterday afternoon in which he was much more moderate (followed by a counter-interview which demolished his arguments …) and the Telegraph is a Tory newspaper (whereas Burnham is Labour) so can be relied on for negative spin, leading questions etc.

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