UK government wants to regulate the Inter Tubes

In the US tech scene you have weekend “bitchmemes”. In the UK, there is a kind of equivalent known as “government minister opens mouth and inserts foot”. This weekend it was the turn of Andy Burnham, the secretary of state for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), and as such supposed to take an interest in the Internet. Unfortunately his weekend interview with a newspaper betrayed the simple fact that he knows nothing at all about the internet. Nothing.

Burnham gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph newspaper saying that the UK government is considering “the need for “child safe” websites – registered with cinema-style age warnings – to curb access to offensive or damaging online material.” There would also be “child-safe” internet services run by ISPs and the “option” of introducing age ratings for websites. “This is an area that is really now coming into full focus,” he said. He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed. He also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Burnham also mooted other safeguards including “compelling websites such as YouTube and Facebook to remove offensive material within a specified time after they have been alerted to it, and changing Britain’s libel laws to make it cheaper for people to sue publishers if they have been defamed online.”

Let’s deal with the main point first.

Ratings for websites are insane. One minute you have a site showing pink rabbits. The next minute one page of it, buried in millions, could display porn. Films don’t change once they’ve left the cutting room – web sites do. Furthermore, Web sites even have difficulty making allowance for browser compatibility let alone content ratings.

And there is of course the small issue that you can’t regulate content on servers held on other countries. That is unless you are a one party state like Saudi Arabia, nearby Qatar or China. Even there they have problems. And of course, a government saying that it has the matter of Internet content in hand means parents would become reassured that their children are safe to surf the web unsupervised. Not a good idea.

And with the economy collapsing, and the tech sector one of the few showing any signs of having some slim chance of weathering the storm, the last thing we need are government regulations slowing everything down.

Regarding making it easier to sue online. Yes, well, Britain’s libel laws are bad enough as it it is. They are based on Victorian concepts of public reputation and the onus is always on the writer/publisher, not the person being written about. This is the reverse of US law, hence why libel tourists like Hollywood actors like to sue on British courts, not American ones. Add the internet to this heady mix and you have a pretty scary recipe, especially if it gets easier to sue.

At least there is some sense inside government. Tom Watson, of the Cabinet Office, has invited views about Burnham’s comments on his personal blog – so far he has 78 comments – and he will forward the comments to Burnham. Needless to say most of the comments aren’t exactly supportive of Burnham’s ideas.

However, there are legitimate concerns to be addressed, such as those of parents. But there are obvious, existing solutions: desktop ‘net nanny’ software is commonly available. Then there is the small fact that THEY ARE PARENTS AND MAY JUST POSSIBLY BE EXPECTED TO BE IN CHARGE OF THEIR KIDS.

But more seriously, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created PICS some time ago. The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) enables labels (metadata) to be associated with Internet content. It was originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet, but it also facilitates other uses for labels, including code signing and privacy. However, a quick perusal of the site show that it is in a bad way, and has largely proved too slow to cope with fast moving nature of the Web today.

But the final solution to rating Web content is actually probably going to be an opportunity for a startup. So for example, sign up to Walt Disney Content Label Scheme? Or one run by the BBC? Or Playboy even.

In the meantime, I have kidnapped Andy Burnham’s name on Twitter (more useful than his lame site), until such time as he’s prepared to sit down and listen to some real feedback about his ideas. Then he can have it back.