212 thoughts on “Andy Burnham and Internet site classification”

  1. Oh. I think this is an idea based on the notion of future media being somehow controllable/manageable by govt. Invest the money in digital media literacy instead.

  2. My own opinion is… it’s bonkers. Absolute twaddle. Not only is it impractical and will be easily circumvented, it is also suppressing free speech. It’s up to parents, not ISPs or the Government, to decide what they want their kids to see.

    Here’s a suggestion: if we plan to provide ‘sanitized’ Net services which only allow pages on a whitelist, why the hell is Mein Kampf, which is FAR more dangerous than the content which would be censored, still freely available?

    Also, even if a blacklist approach was adopted, how long before it starts being abused? What if we get another Richard Dawkins-being-filed-under-‘Occult’ fiasco? Does this mean naturist and anatomy websites will be banned from these services, merely for showing images of the human form?

    In short, it’s completely impractical, and unbefitting of a democracy. Let’s not go down the same road as Australia with regards to net filtering. It’s a slippery slope.

  3. ‘Cinema-style age ratings’ are so beyond unworkable that I’m not worried about it.

    However, this piece does show, yet again, a real lack of technical understanding about “how the internet works” amongst those in charge.

    Does anyone teach them this stuff? And if not, I’m happy to volunteer a day of my time!

  4. The man is just technically illiterate. The WWW signalled the end of censorship, unless you set up a “Great Firewall of China” Governments have their place, but if they really waqnted to be useful they would have controlled the banking industry. But then they are economically illiterate as well. Even Gordo Superbrown.

  5. Off the top of my head…
    1. Granularity – how much of a given ‘age sensitive’ level of content will be needed to trigger a given rating per web-site, 50%, 10%, 1%, a single ‘page’, a single image, a paragraph, a sentence a single word?
    2. Scale – do they have any inkling as to the amount of new content produced each and every day? What’s more it’s not static, how much of a change over what period of time will trigger a re-review, of how much of the site? Imagine ‘mischievous’ content creators automating change in content at just the trigger level on a daily/hourly basis…
    3. Complexity – define ‘web-site’ e.g. is a mashup part of each of the sources it draws on or a separate entity; even if it adds no new content? (consider also mischief as at 2. above)
    4. Resources – three basic approaches, human, automated, hybrid. Automated inevitably leads to stupid, anomalous, easily circumvented and/or ludicrous decisions – i.e. bye-bye Pennistone & Scunthorpe, hello P3n1s & Pr0n; again!
    Human brings us subjectivity, inconsistency/bias and cost (see 2. above). A hybrid solution might or might not address the weaknesses of the other two approaches, or compound them, depending on design.
    Potential Solution
    1. Folksonomic Tagging. Provide a service that a) lets anyone (who has created an, anonymous, account) tag any content (wherever sourced/hosted) by age range and any other manner of words they like. b) lets anyone, if they choose to, selectively filter the content they browse, by a combination of age range, tag and author (a/c name). When after a year only a few hundred people are using the filtering end, the whole thing can be scrapped and dispatched as proven not needed/wanted. On the other hand, if it’s a success, everyone happy. (Kids not using it? Blame the parents. What is this a nanny state?)
    There are already examples of this sort of solution in the wild (e.g.various FireFox plug-ins). Crudely, cost to the tax-payer is limited to the delivery and maintainance of the infrastructure (servers, bandwidth, software, etc) for as long as it’s used sufficiently to be justifiable. Those who have an interest in the issue pay for it’s operation with their time. Those without an interest can ignore it and are (bar tax) unaffected by it.

  6. Would you ask your honourable friend how he would classify a site dealing with forced marriage, under-age pre-marital sex, drug abuse, murder, suicide?

    Congratulations – you’ve just banned Romeo & Juliet.

    This plan is technically unworkable (how do you monitor the billions of pages in this country, let alone the trillions outside of our judicial scope)?

    Who decides what is and isn’t appropriate? What comeback does a website owner have if they are incorrectly censored?

    I suggest you take a look at the excellent book “The Lord Chamberlain Regrets…” Which discusses the failed attempts to regulate and censor the theatre.

  7. It’s just another case of UK Govt not really getting the fact that we dont own the internet, its a global thing remember? This is seriously silly stuff and from a technical point of view just shows a complete lack of understanding about how it all works. Please do some homework.

  8. It’s difficult to know where to start here. There’s a long, long list of reasons why this wouldn’t work at a technical level. The age rating system for films and DVDs works (although it’s efficacy is debatable) because the distribution channels are few, easily identifiable and relatively easily-controllable. That’s the polar opposite of the web, unless he’s envisaging a system where access to non-rated sites is throttled at the ISP level – or perhaps a Great Firewall of Britain?

    Then he seems to have overlooked the fact that most sites aren’t based in or controlled from the UK. So unless the UN is going to get involved – and somehow enforce – the idea’s a non-starter for this reason, as well.

    You’d think that being the Culture Secretary, he’d remember the fiasco of Channel 4’s red triangle. Rather than warning people off, it was a great way of increasing audiences as it signposted the possibility of a 5-second flash of flesh an hour into the film.

    And in any case, who decides what’s appropriate for a 12 year old, as opposed to a 15 year old? The NSPCC? Tanya Byron? The Daily Mail? Or do I, as the parent of two teenagers, get to be involved in deciding how much I’m prepared to trust my kids? And to realise that whether I’d like to or not, I can’t protect them from everything, always? And to take my share of responsibility for the way they use the web – and not outsource my parental responsibilities to a third-party censorship process?

    I’m going to give Andy Burnham the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that he doesn’t actually *want* a censored and controlled internet – although I do sometimes wonder about certain individuals within the UK government. Rather, I’m going to assume that this is the inevitable result of him seeing politics as a zero-sum game, where it’s more important to win headlines than have feasible, considered and balanced policies that don’t cause more harm than they prevent.

    Either he’s technically illiterate and mistakenly believes that this is a viable technical proposition; or he’s a cynical politician who’s busking an interview to tell the audience what he thinks they want to hear. Either is a sad reflection on the competence of the people who presume to govern us. I’d like to think we deserve better.

  9. It should be Ed looking at this issue as educating parents and teachers would be far more effective. Voluntary rating systems have been tried in the past and IMHO one reason they haven’t taken off is a lack of demand from consumers – parents and teachers. I’m frequently horrified at the absolute lack of basic internet safety knowledge displayed by many parents. Without this in place then a rating system is a waste of time.

  10. I note with some amusement that the Independent article you refer to has “x-rated” in it’s keywords list. (Select “View Source”)

    Ignoring the over-simplified age rating system being proposed, I think the idea of providing a ‘clean’ internet feed suitable for unsupervised use by children is an understandable desire for many – but these services are already being provided; just look in any school.

    Similarly, all you have to do is ask any child how they access Facebook at school to find out just how ineffective these filters are.

    (And this is when the school have full administrative rights over the computers the children are using; efforts at censorship will only get more difficult when the capabilities and costs of laptops and phones reach the point that children will be using their own hardware to communicate with the world.

    At the moment, teachers can cope by confiscating the phones and terminals – but we are rapidly approaching a point when this will no-longer be socially acceptable.)

    No, the comments in the article suggest that, like Australia, Mr Burnham is working up to requiring ISPs to install Government-approved censorship hardware on everyone’s Internet connection – hardware that is intended to restrict what adults can see, not just children.

    And, purely from an engineering standpoint, that’s a losing battle. It simply won’t be possible to filter all of a household’s communications – wired, wireless, or otherwise – for forbidden material. It’ll never good enough to be useful. it’ll be enormously unpopular – with the tech-savvy crowd, at least – and it’ll be ripe for abuse.

    Practically, I think Mr Burnham should encourage the use of existing content labeling schemes, such as ICRA [0] and RTA [1], by services that host adult content. The notion of punishing service providers that willfully publish such content without such labels may have merit.

    But if Mr Burnham thinks that technology has developed to the point that ISPs can effectively and economically censor the Internet, suggest gently to him that he go to school and ask the other kids what they think!

    [0] http://www.fosi.org/icra/
    [1] http://www.rtalabel.org/

  11. Same old smoke and mirrors. An unworkable idea which just gives the illusion that Govt’ are tackling a problem. (which technically appears to be beyond their comprehension?.)

  12. There are technical misconceptions, there is the recurring view of the Internet as “TV 2.0″ (cherished by some classical media and content industries eager for ‘regulation’ which may hamper new competition), but there is something much more serious to be taken into account.

    Free speech is the main issue here.

    And in these few lines Andy Burnham seems either to contradict himself or to show need of a better grasp the concept of free speech:
    “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.”

    Not an original position. We’ve seen it before in the UK, already 12 years ago, about the “R3 Safety-Net”:
    “The issue addressed has nothing to do with censorship of legal material or free speech. ”

    At the very least (also mentioning technical matters, at an introductory level), I would suggest reading:

    – Jonathan Weinberg’s paper “Rating the Net” (1997)

    – ACLU’s “Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?” (2002):

    – American Library Association on “Labels and Rating Systems”, particularly “prejudicial labels”:

    Reminding the UK of its own (PICS) past:
    “The Net Labelling Delusion: Saviour or Devil”

    Some classical interesting info and comments can/could be reached via the EFF
    and Irene Graham’s http://libertus.net/
    and Seth Finkelstein’s
    But, a symptom of hold this discussion alread is, many links there may currently be broken.

    EFF, ACLU et al. vs Dept. of Justice and Aschroft vs ACLU may be quite educational:

    Finally, I would like to *thank you* for your interest on these matters, and for your receptiveness to the public’s views here. Although not a British citizen, I am quite aware of the international implications of any national laws on the Internet, both via immediate effects on content access and via the (too common) spreading of unsound law (‘harmonization’, ‘common compliance’ at the EU level, for instance).
    Sorry for not having now time to look for additional or more recent materials on the rating issue.

    Hoping you will be heard,

    J Esteves (from Portugal)

  13. There are technical misconceptions, there is the recurring view of the Internet as “TV 2.0″ (cherished by some classical media and content industries eager for ‘regulation’ which may hamper new competition), but there is something much more serious to be taken into account.

    Free speech is the main issue here.

    And in these few lines Andy Burnham seems either to contradict himself or to show the need of a better grasp of the concept of free speech:
    “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.”

    Not an original position. The UK has seen it 12 years ago, about the “R3 Safety-Net”:
    “The issue addressed has nothing to do with censorship of legal material or free speech. ”

    At the very least (also mentioning technical matters, at an introductory level), I would suggest reading:

    – Jonathan Weinberg’s paper “Rating the Net” (1997)

    – ACLU’s “Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?” (2002):

    – American Library Association on “Labels and Rating Systems”, particularly “prejudicial labels”:

    Reminding the UK of its own (PICS) past:
    “The Net Labelling Delusion: Saviour or Devil”

    Some classical interesting info and comments can/could be reached via the EFF
    and Irene Graham’s http://libertus.net/
    and Seth Finkelstein’s
    But (a symptom of how old this discussion is) many links there may currently be broken.

    EFF, ACLU et al. vs Dept. of Justice and Aschroft vs ACLU may be quite educational:

    Finally, I would like to *thank you* for your interest on these matters, and for your receptiveness to the public’s views here. Although not a British citizen, I am quite aware of the international implications of any national laws on the Internet, both via immediate effects on content access and via the (too common) spreading of unsound law (‘harmonization’, ‘common compliance’ at the EU level, for instance).
    Sorry for not having now time to look for additional or more recent materials on the rating issue.

    Hoping you will be heard,

    J Esteves (from Portugal)

  14. Agreeing with much of the above. What concerns me most, isn’t the impractical nature of the proposals but the motivations of the government trying to introduce this, the lack of technical understanding, and the obvious personal experiences and concerns that Andy Burnham references throughout the interview that have inspired his thinking. The give away quote seems (and note it makes no reference to children) to be:

    “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 serioulsy now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue”.

  15. Another unworkable government idea. Why don’t they tackle the root cause of most problems – parental responsibility (or rather, the lack of it).

  16. No government owns the internet, although many clearly think that they should, for the obvious reason that the public gets easier access to information that those in power would rather we did not know. WE, the people, own the internet. Leave it alone, please.

    Yes, the internet has tons of unpleasantness which I am not for a minute condoning, but:

    A) parents have the responsibility to monitor what their children get up to online, just as they have the say-so whether they watch an X-rated DVD or own a sickening video game or not.

    B) There are already laws to cover such things as libel, slander and all other criminal activity. We know that there are not enough police to deal with just the online child pornography, so this should be dealt with properly as a matter of great urgency.

    C) The Government wants to make the UK the online gambling capital of the world. I think this is very unfortunate and leaves the Government without the benefit of any moral high ground on the issue of internet censorship.

  17. Burnham doesn’t have a clue. A Blogspot blog can be set up in a matter of minutes. If these new rules are introduced, I will personally create one anti-Burnham blog every day with just one post on it. I will encourage other people in the blogosphere to do the same. Let’s see him censor/rate all those blogs. There will be thousands of them, all devoted to ridiculing Mr Burnham.

  18. While I believe that his motives are sound, Burnham’s comments display an alarming ignorance of the online world. Internet filtering services have existed for some time now, and are used by concerned parents and others (including schools) to block unsuitable content. The only criticism that can be levelled against them in most cases is that they tend to err on the side of safety, which is not necessarily a bad thing from the point of view of those who would prefer their children not be exposed to unsuitable material.

  19. What is it with all these WWII measures the government keeps bringing back? Censorship, ID cards – are you going to bring back ARP wardens next? “Put that light out!”

  20. Mr Burnham should have a word with Lord Peter (M).

    I rather thought the watchword was supposed to be not to do or say anything that impeded economic recovery or the growth of trade.

    Trying to cut the UK off from world trade by stopping people accessing unapproved sites is a means of stopping new businesses exporting to or importing from the rest of the world. As we now have a low value of the Pound, encouraging anyone who can to sell to the rest of the world must be sensible. Imposing barriers by getting your website approved is just another barrier to exporting.

  21. Many of the comments above are excellent so I don’t think I can add much, however these thoughts come to mind.

    – Parental controls thru a locked down PC and a whitelist service are widely available. DCMS: put information about them in front of parents and let them decide.

    – The benefits of free discussion and expression of difficult subject matter have long been shown to outweigh the difficulties amongst the adult population.

    – Having recently been running a site with user generated content (both wikipedia-style edited pages as well as forums) there is no way control activity even on tightly focussed sites.

    – The best you can hope for is a strong community to self manage and flag inappropriate content for removal by editors. This is a ground-up solution, and works well most of the time. That’s probably the best you can ask for and should be supported.

    – A top-down solution is fundamentally incompatible with the structure and processes that make the internet function. This approach hasn’t worked with copyright and it won’t work with subject matter either.

    – It’s an old saying now, but the internet perceives censorship as damage and will route around it.

  22. There are plenty of good points above, so I won’t add anything constructive, just a cry from the heart…

    How disappointing it is that Andy Burnham, who seems like a very nice and sensible man, is coming out with rubbish like this. Is it an attempt to reassure Telegraph readers, or frighten them? What makes me most nervous is the possibility that someone is making slick presentations to justify some super-expensive super-system for the DCMS to spend billions of pounds on.

    I really hope that either these comments have been misinterpreted or a few people will sit down with Andy and have some strong words on how the internet actually works before he’s allowed to sign off any decisions.

    The only sensible quote is “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.” I hope he’ll carry on telling people that and pointing people towards the very wide options for safeguards that are available and being developed all the time, instead of pretending teh big bad interweb can be ‘fixed’ by heroic governments.

  23. Of course some politicians see the “good idea” as opposed to the depth of insight and become fall guys for supposed opinion until disabused.

    This is probably a lack of digital literacy on the AB’s part that anything else. What is worrying is that such ignorance can be amplified and put out there as some sort of cohesive opinion when, as patently pointed out by many people on here, it is complete and utter tosh.

    I think it’s time politicians addressed the lack of Digital Literacy on the agenda in schools and homes and funded that rather than pushing out re-active unworkable soundbite fliers that waste everyone’s time. Digital Literacy is not mentioned in the curriculum and it is not on the government’s agenda – pity really as it is a lost opportunity to educate people in this area rather than lock down. If you provided a small percentage of the funding towards in-depth continual professional development for teachers, parents and pupils in this are rather than spoof scare stories we might have a higher level of insight into the problem and some mature, measured and practical ways forward. Is that too much to ask – yes it requires more work than just a soundbite…

  24. “I think it’s time politicians addressed the lack of Digital Literacy”

    I think it’s time politicians addressed the lack of Digital Literacy in Parliament. There are too many lawyers, PPEs, sociology lecturers etc.

    Remember, incidentally, that many of them (eg, Andy Burnham) have never had jobs, so they are disconnected from the real world in lots of ways (not just the Internet).

  25. I highly recommend a First Amendment and a Section 230, the first Amendment of the web that protects hosts regarding others speech so as to encourage and protect that speech (http://w2.eff.org/bloggers/lg/faq-230.php). America may not have much to export these days, but I suggest these two laws and ethic of speech should inform efforts to regulate and restrict speech.

    Ofcom is already doing good work on media literacy to educate young people about veracity and risks. That is a far better investment of government effort.

    Once everyone owns a press and a broadcast tower, government can’t regulate it all anymore. Thank god.

  26. Sorry for this show of ignorance, but do you British folk purposely put the ignorant in positions to oversee areas they are most ignorant of? i.e., Vegetarians in control of meat production; A deaf person controlling the production of music, etc?

    Because we do that here in America — see our current President, he of total ignorance of everything was placed in a position to run everything — but I was hoping that we were alone in our stupid ways of running things. Alas, I think I was mistaken… for you do it too.

    Because if Any Burnham thinks a movie-style ratings system will work on the internet… then he obviously has no place making policy that impacts the internet.

    Read this. Learn this. Memorize this… The internet is worldwide and can’t be controlled, classified or edited by one single entity. Period.

    Even the brilliant powers-that-be in China are learning this the hard way… for they’ve been running their great Internet firewall (to keep unapproved western internet sites out of China) for a few years now… and if there is one commonality to every version of their efforts… it is that anyone with a modicum of knowledge can bypass it.

    Unless, or until, Andy Burnham learns this… his efforts will be the efforts of a failure.

    If your intent is the keep children safe (and that looks to be his goal), then perhaps time would be better spent teaching parents to actually PARENT their children… then relying upon the rest of the world to do it for you.

  27. This idea is impractical. The internet is far too vast and complex to simply put a ‘R’ or ‘PG-13’ on every site. If anything this will be counterproductive to teaching children how to use the internet. The internet is not a playground for children, it is an information hub that has far too many uses and applications to simply slam a rating on. The ‘save the children’ argument is a well-known “logical phallacy”, right up there with the ‘slippery slope’ and the ‘poisoning of the well’. Do not rate or censor the internet – the internet is not a playground, nor is it a record store or a cinema.

  28. To me, the idea of asking ISPs to filter the content they provide is somewhat akin to asking BT to filter every obscene conversation that is conducted on their wires. An ISP simply provides the access to the internet; they are not in control of its content.

    As anyone who has worked under an internet filter designed to protect children (as I have done at school) will tell you, they are prone to malfunction in that they over-censor. Many times we would attempt to enter an innocent, scholarly site, discover it was blocked and have to campaign the IT Officer to allow us access. This took long enough on a school level – I cannot imagine how it would function on a national scale.

    However, for those who simply wished to view images of naked people on the library computers, the solution was easy: search in different languages.

  29. It’s a monumentally bad idea. I mean really, really bad. It wont work, It’s doesn’t do us any favours politically. Tom, just beat them until they disist this.

  30. Please fight this idea.

    a) It’s ignorant of how the internet works. Censoring the net will have the same effect as prohibition, driving innocent people into criminality.

    b) It misunderstands history. The original creators of the internet (the US department of defense) didn’t want one that governments couldn’t access.

    c) The internet is greatest channel for free speech we’ve ever known. If you’re a democrat, that is a universal good. Yes, even speech you dislike.

    d) The bell curve has extremes in both directions. What about those smuggling knowledge of repressive governments like Burma or Zimbabwe? Amnesty international?

    e) The censoring equipment censors both ways – that’s why people don’t trust it. This is the start of an argument that will become increasingly repressive and be used to justify more and more control just as RIPA has been misused far beyond terrorism. Once you give those in charge repressive powers, they will find a reason to use them.

    d) In any case, the “for the children” argument is broken. Why not use “for the adults”, or “for democracy”? Sometimes you need to accept unpleasantness to let adults be free.

    e) Culture and progress is increasingly dependent on memes (the spread of ideas). If you want Britain to do well, you want ideas to be propagated and judged by as many people as possible. Yes, even the annoying/insulting/criminal ones.

    f) In any case the government can’t control free speech. You can destroy it quite easily, but you can’t compel it. It’s a question of allowing it or not.

    g) Finally, I think the tide of history is against you. All round the world, people are trying their own version of free expression. If you damp down on it they will hate you. I believe for better or worse, this genie has already been released.

  31. Anyone who thinks the Internet can be censored similar to broadcast television, cable or traditional media like DVDs or magazines simply does not understand how the Internet works.

    A better idea would be to spend the money that would be spent on pointless censorship on education the general populace (and especially parents) on how the Internet works and how to properly supervise under-age children while they use it. Education almost always beats over-protection.

  32. Why can’t the gov and regulators just stay away from the internet? Its up to parents to monitor kids , we all shouldn’t have to deal with this. The UK treats it citizens like shit , don’t bring it to my usa, thanks

  33. Everyone is pointing out that this system is unworkable and why. Let’s take a look at why Burnham would choose to make these statements.

    I don’t think he’s as big an idiot as these proposals would suggest (I could be wrong though). Look at where he announced them: In an interview with the Telegraph. That’s Conservative ground zero.

    Burnham appears to be adopting a variation of ‘back to basics,’ probably in order to swing some middle class voters back to Labour. It’s the same strategy Bill Clinton used with the (failed) Communications Decency Act almost 13 years ago.

    I don’t think Burnham realises how significant the internet’s influence is today (just ask Barak Obama). He may turn a few swing voters with this, but he’ll lose far more votes when the internet backlash kicks in. This story is already front page news on many blogs and on several high traffic news sites. NONE of the comments posted anywhere are favourable (not even on the Telegraph’s article page).

    Ironically, in the article, Burnham claims to be meeting with Obama. When they do, hopefully he will explain just how badly Labour needs to update their attitude to the internet.

  34. Hi Tom.

    If I had to distil this to its smallest coherent part, I think the reason I think Burnham’s setting a new record for idiocy when he said this:

    “Leaving your child for two hours unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.”

    Leaving your child unsupervised in a public library is likely to run a similar risk of exposure to age-inappropriate material.

    He’s doing it wrong. Parenting, I mean. It’s not my bloody problem if he can’t be bothered to supervise his children.

    (Plus, obviously, all of the above regarding the non-efficacy and extremely-dubious legality of his low-wattage ideas.)

    Still, chin up, eh? Can’t be easy playing firefighter when so many of your colleagues are playing with matches…

  35. Let me attempt to explain the situation in the simplest way possible. Computers perform basic math, they cannot tell the difference between safe and non-safe content. There are only two ways of filtering the internet. Black list and White list. White list means you can only view websites on a pre-approved list. This reduces the size of the Internet to less than 1% instantly and means no new content (such as news, questions on forums and you tube videos) can’t be viewed until checked first. Internet games, facebook and IM networks would disappear No one has the resources to implement this. It is IMPOSSIBLE. The second is a black list. This means websites on a list can’t be visited but the ease of moving websites to new locations and peer to peer networking mean the blacklist is easy to avoid and has no impact on the internet. It’s a useless tool. Until AI is sufficient (never) your ideal of filtering is completely ridiculous. You have to accept the fact that the Internet gives an annoymous voice to people which is used to spread racism, sexism and violent attitudes but any attempt to repress this directly results in a loss of free speech, development of technology and science by those using the Internet for beneficial communications and a breakdown in companies ability to communicate effectively. You have to give up and accept the Internet for what it is! Then you’ll realise the good outways the bad. Remember the Internet only sends 1s and 0s. It doesn’t actually hurt people. It doesn’t make people molest children in the same way that computer games aren’t responsible for aggressive children. Accept it and move on.

  36. Andy Burnham talks about “defining where the public interest lies” but has a clear stance on anti-transparency in government which raises questions for me about his real motives. Even if these are genuine, this is an example of the current government’s insistence on tinkering with legislation in order to be soon doing something. You need to give the population credit for having some intelligence. And his comments give the impression that he doesn’t really understand what he is talking about.

  37. Parents and legal guardians are there to regulate a child’s behaviour and access to media. This is solely an issue of free speech and another example of the state infringing on the rights of the general public in an overbaringly, if not sinister, manner. This cannot be allowed to happen, and as a poster above me states, “A better idea would be to spend the money that would be spent on pointless censorship on education the general populace (and especially parents) on how the Internet works and how to properly supervise under-age children while they use it”.

  38. Not much to add except my agreement with the comments above. Particularly like the idea of putting someone in charge of Internet policy who actually understands and uses the Internet. Or at least surround them with civil servants who do. I’m not sure this should come under the Culture remit anyway. Surely it’s more akin to technology or even transport?

    Above all this hits my “Daily Mail Something Should Be Done” alarm button. Better to invest in some critical thinking classes in schools I think.

  39. “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.”

    For children young enough to have a serious need for any “protection from the internet”, the same is true of leaving them on the sidewalk on a main street; shall we preemptively handcuff all pedestrians to prevent them from kidnapping or molesting children?

  40. This is unequivocally one of the worst ideas to censor the internet and I must note that its conquer has been attempted by many.

    The internet should not be censored to protect the children, in fact it is ultimately the parents responsibility to protect their own children from content that they deem as offensive, obscene, or wrong.

    This is simply a case of corrupt world governments seeking to control the proletariat. This is their method to eviscerate the proletariat and it is quite obvious to many of the worlds 6.7 billion strong population that we are quickly slipping into a global state of oppression.

    This is ultimately the control of information, disinformation and propaganda. A poignant example of the near total control of information given to the proletariat is that of the Mainstream Media and its ownership by only five separate individuals. TV is controlled and is naught but a propaganda machine because of this. The internet is the last free form of information distribution and it cannot and should not be altered in any way shape or form nor should it be censored because someone somewhere might possibly be offended by content they disagree with.

    This is very obviously just another attempt to restrict the flow of information by an incompetent government.

    If children were to be cherished and protected then perhaps a reality check of yourself should be allowed for you to realize the corporations employing deceptive marketing campaigns aimed at children are doing more harm than good or perhaps the abysmal state of public education should be given a second thought. There are worse evils than the possible offense of a child using the internet and discovering something obscene.

    Perhaps parents should stop being so lazy and start parenting. That would end this bollocks on internet censorship.

    If you want to start rating websites like TV is rated perhaps we can create a website to rate our public officials with which I propose we start with you.

    I rate you a nice circular zero. You fail go back and crawl into that cave from whence you came.

    Noob O_o.

  41. The internet works on the principles of anarchy. You can’t filter it. And if you started, people would develop another protocol, invulnerable. The web isn’t everything, after all.

  42. A quick thank you to all the posters above – it’s great to see such a measured, pragmatic and polite range of responses.

    All I can add is how disappointing it is that ill-educated ideas like this proposed censorship can get beyond the walls of the office without being tested against censorship history or basic computer and networking science.

    Are we not entitled to have experts make decisions for a change?

  43. Completely unacceptable, I don’t want the ISP’s to turn into Gestapo style regulation enforcers. Giving websites ratings like movies and games is complete bullocks, the guy who thought of this is completely against freedom of speech, and just against the overall freedom of the internet.

  44. To be blunt, it’s nonsense. Here’s just one reason why:

    1. The numbers involved. According to the Netcraft Server Survey, in December 2008, there were around 186,727,854 websites.

    So, the proposed scheme would have to classify 187 million websites. But it gets worse; in December 2008 an extra 1.56 million sites were created. Just to tread water 1,560,000 sites would have to be classified in December alone.

    Lets say it takes an hour to look at a site, classify it and do the paperwork. In a working month of 160 hours, this would take 9,750 people to classify December’s sites alone. Lets say the cost of employing them was 20,000 a year. The annual salary bill of the raters alone would be 195,000,000. Then you have the support staff, the HR etc. Then the buildings etc.

    It is a ludicrous idea. It’s a very, very expensive idea.

    Read More Here

  45. Dear All,

    I’d just like to say thank you for your intelligent, thoughtful and mainly helpful suggestions.

    I’ll make sure that Andy sees all of the comments, other than the two I deleted for being rude.

    I’m writing to him at the end of the week (January 2nd) so any further ideas are welcome until then.

    Best wishes and Happy New Year.

  46. No choice but to agree with everyone else that this is obviously a waste of time and effort. I don’t think it will have any positive impact and (for that matter) I don’t think it is even positive politically.

  47. Please, stop trying to regulate the Internet. It’s futile. You *can’t* do it. “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” John Gilmore famously said.

    There is absolutely no point in trying to force UK ISPs to enforce regulation which is technically impossible, so just stop trying.

    If there is money to be spent on the Internet in the UK, try spending it on upgrading our feeble local loop infrastructure, free up all the wasted/reserved RF spectrum, get *everybody* connected, and let’s move on. The biggest problem with regards to the Internet in the UK is the *LAST* mile, *NOT* the FIRST mile!

  48. Perhaps Andy should trial the idea for a week.

    He could take a week off normal duties, sit down and start working through the world’s web sites, classifying them. We could set him a target of getting 0.00001% of the job done.

    After a week he could feed back his experiences. There’s nothing so salutary as direct experience of work you’re asking other people to do.

  49. Thinking about this a bit more, I think it’s a case of Burnham seeing websites as, bluntly, entertainment when they should be seen as communities. If you take this view then placing ratings on environments in which people socialise is mildly absurd (although it does have a precedent with pubs but that’s more to do with alcohol restrictions than community filtering).

    My website is partly entertainment, in that I provide content that some people find entertaining, but it’s primarily a social venue where I communicate with my readers. As such it’s more analogous to a gathering in my living room or a church hall rather than a DVD or television program.

    Even items online such as videos on YouTube are not simply entertainment in the sense of broadcast television – they’re objects around which people socialise.

    I’d suggest thinking about how governments deal with how citizens gather and communicate with each other and apply that thinking to the Internet.

  50. At the risk of repeating what has been said above, I see five basic issues with Andy Burnham’s “cinema style ratings” for websites.

    1. Who is responsible for the ratings? The potential for abuse and error is huge.

    2. How will they keep up with the sheer volume of websites? Google said recently that they have processed over 1 trillion unique URLs. It was said a few years ago that one blog was started every minute. Not all of these are English, but it gives some idea of the enormity of the task that is being proposed. Additionally, it must be kept in mind that websites are not like films. They are dynamic. Most are changing every day. How often would websites be reviewed?

    3. Who will pay for it? Will you have to register your website, and thus pay a fee and bureaucratic red tape just to get a site online? Who will be responsible for compensating website owners in the event that their site has been rated incorrectly? Even if website owners have to pay a registration fee, who will pay for enforcement and periodic reviews?

    4. How will this be enforced? Even at the ISP level, I don’t see this working using either an IP address or a domain name. An IP address is far too broad and a domain name is completely ineffective since you can put the same content up under multiple domains.

    5. The censorship issue needs to be addressed. Any system put in place to enforce a rating system would be incredibly invasive and could far too easily be used to enforce a censorship policy. I simply don’t trust this kind of thing in the hands of the UK government. We’ve already seen the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001 abused to freeze Icelandic funds in this country. I suspect that the temptation to abuse a ratings system would simply prove too great in the case of a ‘national emergency.’

  51. An illustration of how things should work from another technology (and about 10 years ago). A friend (an evangelical CofE priest) and his family explained how they approached TV.

    The thing is TV may be divided by the 9pm watershed, but that rather crudely separates things on the basis of gross content (eg nudity).

    My friend’s concern was that the message in some TV ran contrary to a lot of what he believed in. That wasn’t properly regulated by the 9pm watershed. The solution? To make sure you watched TV with your children as much as you could and discussed the issues arising from it. i.e. Good Parenting.

    To illustrate how a content system wouldn’t help him at all, a program he had trouble with was “Friends”. The reason? Lots of people having lots of in many cases relatively casual sexual relationships without very much apparent emotional fallout. He (having counselled a lot of people in difficult circumstances) felt that gave a totally false message.

    The irony is that almost any system of classification is going to pass “Friends” as wholesome and OK for family viewing but films with unsimulated sexual intercourse (like Shortbus or Nine Songs) would be censored, yet the latter *do* explore a lot of the emotional content of sex and are much less misleading.

    The fact that my harder-line religious friends aren’t calling for anything like this, suggests that it really is a bad idea (if, of course, it was workable or sane in any other respect).

  52. In theory, nice ideas; in practice, one of the most imbecile ideas I’ve heard for a long time. Totally unforceable. I’m afraid that the cat is already out of the bag. Also, it is affecting free speech, a basic human right. A government minister is not going to tell me what to do. Frankly, I’ve had enough of this meddling and ignorant government.

  53. I’m a Brit living in Qatar, a small nation in the Middle East. The Qataris have web filtering, similar to what has been proposed by the Australian government. The stated targets of the filter are threefold: pornography, criticism of Islam, and criticism of Gulf governments.

    Here’s where the Qatari system breaks down, and where any age-classification system in Britain will fail. The Internet is too massive for any government to accurately classify each page, or even each website. The Chinese have tried throwing manpower at the problem, but still it’s possible to read illegal material via a Chinese Internet connection.

    The Qataris buy in their classification system from a US firm, which provides monthly updates. Of course, the classification problem is also too big for the company producing the filter, but the holes in the system does not prevent parents from being reassured that their children are safe to surf the web unsupervised. Because of the software’s limitations, the definition of “pornography” has become twisted to become “deemed unsuitable for US children”.

    Local rules can be applied on top of the base set of classifications, but these “manual blocks” are usually a knee-jerk reaction to an individual’s outrage at a particular page. It would be most improbable for a telecoms engineer to defend a tasteless web-page as “not tasteless enough” against a politician’s ire. There seems no way to escrow such decisions, and so the classifications don’t fit any overall standard.

    Many sites are overblocked, where thousands of pages are blocked to prevent access to a few illegal pages. And still, typing any sexual euphemism into Google’s image search will produce thousands of unblocked matches.

    Here’s the big thing that you should know about web filtering. Parents in Qatar love it. They don’t care about the overblocking, or that it doesn’t work at preventing access to illegal material, or that every 14-year-old knows how to completely circumvent the system. Parents think the state is protecting their children from filth, and that’s all that matters.

    If the UK develops its own classification system for websites, are the politicians strong enough to withstand a campaign to ban all adult content?

  54. I agree with the comments about the absurdity of the concept. It is self evident.

    I think that the point here is parental supervision. I’ve been working on a project putting computers with Internet access into socially excluded families. Our principle has been forget the walled garden, put the computer somewhere public. If we could encourage the government to adopt the ‘computers don’t belong in kids bedrooms’ stance that would be a positive and sensible move.

    I’m just waiting for this to be used as a reason to promote ID cards 🙂

  55. Let parents be parents and monitor what their children view. Let the rest of us fully thinking, responsible adults decide what is best for us. We don’t need any damn Nanny state.

  56. The foolish notion that some British quango could rate the entire Internet is a dead horse that needs no extra flogging from me.

    The notion that the Internet might do some self-rating with some quango encouragement when they err (the watershed idea) has been around for over a decade, first with RSACI, then with ICRA — and when people realised that more than one rating system might be needed, with PICS. These ideas stagger on as a way of raising funding from Brussels, but they’re dead as a dodo in the real world. About the only sites that now bother with these ratings are soft-porn sites wishing to look responsible, and Whitehall ministries who spend so little time on the classification that they regularly mislabel: http://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2007/09/17/web-content-labelling/

    Finally, I note that Andy Burnham wishes to interfere in industry to force ISPs to have child-friendly offerings. However, the reason that they don’t have these products isn’t some institutional wickedness, but that they’ve tried them in the past and they’ve failed to set the world on firre. One of these, which burnt through a heap of funding before admitting defeat was UK Online. Yes, that was an ISP name before the Government stole it to brand one of their early attempts at a portal! Still, I’m sure that Cabinet Ministers must know lots and lots more about running an ISP than the current board members; so perhaps that will be a fun new job for Andy after the next reshuffle?

  57. 1) Completely unworkable – billions of web pages, as you can’t rate an entire domain/IP/server, otherwise Google (for example) would have to be rated ’18’ as the search could display profanities and the image search could display pornography. How many people would be needed to rate every single webpage on the internet? I’m thinking a lot.

    2) Easy to circumvent. Just use a proxy or an SSH connection or Tor, etc etc. I’m 19 now, and I’ve known about Tor since it was first released when I was 14. I knew about proxies long before. Children these days are becoming more accustomed to technology from an early age.

    3) It is not the government’s job to legislate away parents’ responsibilities. A parent wouldn’t leave a child in town unsupervised, so why should they feel okay to leave a child online unsupervised? The government is not legislating town centres to be safe for small children to be left unsupervised, why should they do the same to the internet? If a parent really wants to leave their child unsupervised, it is their responsibility to either set up filtering software or take the risk. Alternatively, they could specifically pick an ISP that offers filtering. If there is enough demand, one should exist.

  58. Oh, also, how would you feel if your blog got rated ’18’ and was unviewable on millions of internet connection because a visitor wrote a comment including a profanity, or even an innocent word/phrase that could also be used as a sexual euphemism?

  59. To help Mr Burnham out, I’ve rated my blog http://andypiper.wordpress.com/2008/12/27/parental-guidance-advised/ and Twitter stream http://twitter.com/andypiper

    OK so that’s a little tongue-in-cheek. I can’t add a huge amount more to the well-thought-out commenters so I’ll echo the view that it’s not implementable, even through negotiation with the US – Britain and America do not “own” the Internet, English-language or otherwise. I also found the statement in the Telegraph interview that “if you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach” completely bizarre… surely the Internet grew out of university networks and is hardly a deliberate attempt to subvert the political systems of the world.

    Beyond that, it’s not an issue of whether this is implementable – it’s a knee-jerk reaction to attempt to regulate, AGAIN.

    Mr Watson, whilst I’m absolutely delighted that you’re on Twitter and blogging – and the fact that you’ve asked for our opinions here is a major step forward in terms of political engagement in the UK, I’m afraid that many of your colleagues in your own party and others in the House in general are a long way off understanding the importance of the changes that are going on around them. I’d suggest to them that they look at what Obama has just done in the US and start to think very seriously about how the Internet is changing the nature of society and political engagement.

    In terms of understanding where we are with technology, I’d strongly encourage every MP to read “Grown Up Digital” by Don Tapscott as a minimum.

  60. I hate to say it, pticly given there have been so many more eloquent responses above, but Andy Burnham is providing a clear example of why politicians shouldn’t talk about things they don’t understand.

    His comments show a complete lack of understanding as to how the Internet works. There have been rating schemes on the Internet — the Secretary of State could do with reading up on PICS, for example. They don’t work. The Internet has been popular in average British households for about a decade now; several ISPs have made child-friendly service provision part of their key offering (UK Online and AOL, for example). Surely Mr Burnham can see that if there were genuinely large demand for such services then Easynet and AOL wouldn’t have changed those propositions?

    I hate to sound patronising, but parenting is all about raising children. If you’re concerned about what a child sees and does, you supervise them. You wouldn’t let your child wander around dangerous streets on their own, why would you let them use the Internet without some form of supervision.

    This is a recipe for abrogation of parental responsibility and, quite frankly, it’s a stupid idea that exposes the Secretary of State’s complete lack of understanding for what the Internet is and how it works.

    It is simply not possible to have effective control over something as large and decentralised as the Internet, where servers can be kept in “unhelpful” jurisdictions. Most website owners simply won’t be interested in certifying their content as child-safe. The whole proposal is completely doomed to failure and, to be honest, Mr Burnham could do with a crash course in what the Internet is, how it works and what online culture is like.

    And also, he should bear in mind that the purpose of government is most definitely not to ensure that the whole world is safe for children. It isn’t and never will be. That’s why parents are legally responsible for their children for almost two decades.

    Given he mentioned “preventing illegal downloads of copyrighted content” in the same interview, I’d suggest he could probably do with reading the Gowers Report again too; I’d also recommend Rufus Pollock’s work on the same subject.

  61. Fantastic conversation and debate here – I applaud Tom Watson for using social media to reach out and ask for people’s opinions in this way! Although we should remember that the sort of people who comment on blogs are likely among the more tech and web savvy part of the population, so the mostly anti-classification stance seen here shouldn’t be seen as the view of the general population. (Ah, the echo chamber of the blogosphere!)

    I think most of what I would have said about the censorship/free speech side of the issue has already been mentioned here. But another concern that I don’t think has been bought up is the extent to which such regulations would stifle innovation and new businesses in what is still a very young industry. The need to comply with age classifications would stop many a small tech/digital media startup dead in their tracks. This is the last thing that’s needed at a time when many companies are concerning themselves with finding long-term revenue streams in a turbulent market.

    That said, I’ve got a lot of respect for Andy Burnham. I work in the digital side of the music industry and, having seen him speak at Manchester’s In The City industry conference earlier this year, think he should definitely be seen as being “on our side”, and aware of many of the issues at play here. There’s inevitably a need for debate here, but let’s work with him, not shout him down as being technically incompetent! 🙂

  62. As a web start-up company making inroads into the territory of print magzines I fear political interference with the web. My readership is predominantly professionals in the hotel and hotel design world (over 45,000 readers a month reading nearly half a million pages) and we are slowly becoming profitable after six years.

    I agree with Mr Deamer that anything which adds to the difficulties of start-ups in this still technically difficult medium, and government meddling would be high on my list, is to be deplored. As it is every third employee I take on adds a civil servant to my wage bill in terms of the amount of PAYE, VAT, and other local and government taxes I have to pay – froma turnover not much more than most MP’s take home in pay and expenses.

    Government would do better removing obstacles in the way of better internet provision – getting the whole country up to the speeds of 100megabits that they have had for example in Korea for the last four years. We are so far behind others, and have given away so many technical leads through political interference (such as our lead in civil avaiation, in vertical lift engines, in maglev etc.) that I despair whenever a new political initiative is announced.

    Why don’t you all do something useful, like removing obstacles to industry, rather than this moralistic social engineering?

  63. I have now read all 72 posts and not a single one of them supports the concept (unless I somehow missed one, for which I apologise in advance!). The posts are eloquent and well thought through – a shame the same can’t be said for the completely untenable idea of censoring the internet. What I really don’t understand is why Andy didn’t talk to any one of us – or all of here before announcing the idea. We could have politely explained that it is not technically possible. Whether it is advisable is another issue entirely. I for one think it is a very bad idea. We live in a democracy after all.

  64. Five points:

    1) The volume of content on the internet and the ease with which it can be placed beyond the jurisdiction of the UK government/courts makes the idea of rating english-language sites unworkable.

    2) ISPs are no better placed to solve that problem than governments: they don’t have the resources to check the rating of every byte that is uploaded via their service, any more than a centralised BBFC-type body would.

    3) The only remotely practical way to make this workable is to require UK-based individuals uploading content to rate that content using whatever system the government might mandate, then to treat a failure to do so (or a failure to rate content accurately) as an offence if the presence of unrated or improperly rated content is reported. Which brings us back to the problem of how this system would scale: who has the resources to respond to reports, and what penalties would they be able to impose? Given the recent IWF/Wikipedia debacle, is there any reason to be confident that reports of potentially offensive content would be dealt with openly, transparently and fairly?

    4) If a household contains both adults who want access to an uncensored internet feed and children who require access to a ‘child-safe’ internet, how does the ISP figure out which requests for a web page comes from the child and which from the adults? If ISPs offer a child-friendly internet connection, won’t they be forced to provide it for the entire family? (Remember, a lot of households haven’t even mastered setting up separate, restricted, user accounts on their Windows PC for the kids; what are the chances they’ll manage to both set up user accounts and configure network login details to tell the ISP which user is requesting that web page so that the ISP can work out whether to serve up child-safe content?)

    5) ISPs are free to offer a filtered, “child-safe” internet package today, and some have done so in the past. Other ISPs (e.g. AOL/Compuserve) offered access to a ‘walled garden’ where all content was (in principle) safe and monitored. There doesn’t appear to be much demand for such services nowadays. Parents concerned with protecting their children from ‘unsafe’ content can buy software to install on their PC today. If there is a rising tide of concern about the issues Mr Burnham raises, why do ministers think that such software and such child-safe internet packages haven’t seen greater take-up rates?

  65. Surely the ‘Government’ has far more important and better things to be focusing their energies on… has Mr Burnham actually got any understanding or experience to be putting these kinds of patently stupid ideas forward?

  66. If you introduce this policy for the written word on the Internet, then by the same token it also needs to be introduced for books. All books, including religious ones. Want to open that can of worms? What certificate would you give the bible with all that sin, nudity, incest (who did Adam and Eve’s children procreate with?), bigamy, violence, etc? If an entire book gets a 15 certificate because of one page in a 500 page work, does a 500 page website get the same treatment because of one page within its content? That would ban all of wikipedia from access by schools then – just as what happened with the recent graphic album cover on wikipedia issue. This isn’t videogames we’re talking about here, it’s a medium where millions of new pages are generated every hour. Why not take a look at ICRA – surely a voluntary international standard is the best way forward rather than heavy handed government?

  67. It’s time somebody took Government Ministers behind the bikesheds and told them the facts of the world-wide-web life.

    Mr Burnham is the latest Secretary/ Minister to show his ignorance.

    There is a better approach to the issue of child protection: firstly help parents to understand how to accept responsibility for their kids’ browsing; secondly promote wider awareness of the benefits of the readily available content filtering (browser functionality and other utility software).

    More advice and further concerns at: http://tinyurl.com/8cwjcd

  68. There have been many well thought through responses as so why this is such an awful, and unworkable idea so I have little to add. But I would like to reiterate and support the idea of spending some decent money on Digital Literacy education for parents, children, teachers, civil servants and politicians.

    Classes should be compulsory for the latter two categories, with exams and a requirement for continual renewal of their certification in order to continue in their job. The internet – and technology in general – appears to be horribly misunderstood by government, with only a few bright flames in the darkness. Despite the fact that technology is crucial to our country’s development, ignorance of computers and the internet seems to be worn as a badge of pride by far too many people in positions of power and influence. We need to change that.

    I’d also recommend taking a look at danah boyd’s work on understanding the effect of technology and the internet on children, and particularly her work on assessing the actual threats to minors. (Her site is http://www.danah.org.) There is a distinct lack of perspective on the issue of child safety online, and without perspective we end up with stupid suggestions such as those from Mr Burnham.

  69. Leaving out assessments of technical knowledge or the practical reality of implementing this proposal, I would like to point out that if humanity had slavishly followed the attitude that because something was “unworkable” or “offensive” to the majority view then it should not be considered, we would still be in fear of falling off the edge of a flat world should we venture beyond the horizon and burning people for denying the self-evident truth or our own eyes that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

    In broad, practical terms it is true. Certifying the content of the Internet as a whole is impossible. Mr Burnham, pay attention to that statement. Impossible. Cannot be done. No point in trying. Retract this proposal because in proposing blanket certification you are merely giving ammunition to your opponents and harming every new proposal you make through association.

    What is possible, however, is to certify and regulate the content of the Internet as accessed through Government controlled institutions where certification is appropriate. Schools, for example. If a site wants to have its content accessible through pupil accounts then why not insist it apply for certification?

    Schools are institutions of learning and act in loco parentis. What possible reason is there to allow access to social networking sites through a school terminal? Why should a pupil be allowed access to FaceBook whilst at school? What has this to do with education?

    There is nothing wrong with a whitelist DIRECTLY related to the curriculum. A whitelist would, as pointed out by a previous poster, reduce the Internet to 1% (I say less) of its size but why is that a bad thing when we talk about a curriculum and appropriate use of educational resources.

    What a child does outside school should be the responsibility of the parent and educating parents as to responsible Internet Patenting should be undertaken

    Maybe proposing a curriculum-based formula for restricting internet access at schools is a more realistic starting point for discussion than running around in a moral panic proposing something akin to the abolition of gravity.

  70. This is a BLANK comment. Nothing to see here. I’m hoping if I stand here in dumbfound silence that maybe someone will notice…..

    .. Ok, I gave in to the pressure. This is like saying that you will bring in legislation that says if you are going to send a fax, you have to put a Cinema style classification on the cover sheet…. It’s that dumb.

    Hey, what you say we get the government to browse the web, and choose what sites we can view and what sites we can’t view, and copy them to the government web site, then we know anything that is on the government web site is safe.

    This way, we can get the general public to work for the government, and get paid to surf the web, and the rest of us ‘concerned parents’ will get the sanitized version of the web. Side benefit, is that it should keep a few (million) people in a job for a few years, to outlast the recession… Good idea!

    Seriously, I’m not joking.

  71. A useful and apt comparison is this.

    Life is not child safe, so do you suggest legally enforced electronic controls on thoughts, voices and actions to ensure that it is?

    No? not scalable? What is scaleable? What about that which has operated for the millenia – personal responsibility. Parents have the responsibility for doing the best for their children, leave it to them. For those who do not act with that responsibility then you have a much bigger problem – is that what we see today in the streets, a world where parents are NOT taking responsibility for their actions nor the actions of their charges. I would suggest that you focus on that bigger problem first before you try and attack the trendy ideas like Internet censorship.

  72. How on Earth did Andy Burnham get to be responsible for the DCMS? He clearly has no clue about the Internet! He should stick to what he knows, and stop making ridiculous and unworkable suggestions involving censorship, technically impossible solutions, and ignorance about the Web.

  73. Apologies for coming to this subject late. I won’t overload Tom’s comment section with my response as it runs to over 10,000 words but if you’d like to point Andy in the direction of it then it is worded as an open letter to him.
    That said, I really wish I’d read the Byron Review before I got to to the last few paragraphs as much of my post draws similar conclusions. Given that it was a specific review intended to formulate Government policy on child safety surrounding use of the internet it is interesting to note that it specifically advises against ISP level filtering and considers some form of age classification for websites as ineffective, not feasible and at best a partial solution.
    He should probably read it.

  74. You can make this work, and you have to.

    The Internet is a place with a lot of disturbing content for children, they need basic protection at the DNS level. Cause you cannot expect parents to all know how to install filtering software. Most parents know less then their children when it comes to Internet technologies.

    The way you do it though needs to be made correctly:

    1. Talk with Google about how to make this work. Google knows exactly how to filter adult material. Just try doing image searches on Google and make sure you do it in safe mode. It works.

    2. Setup with Obama a basic adult ratings system that uses Browser plugins and customized Google Chrome browser. In collaboration with thousands of adults who will have their connections unfiltered. When adult material is displayed, a little “Adult material present” red icon blinks in the browser. If users are viewing adult material and the icon is not blinking, then they can press one simple “report adult material” button. You setup trust algorithms, you know the reliability of those adult users. It’s got nothing to do with invading on adults privacy, it’s got to do with letting all adults participate in protecting children.

    3. Do not, do NEVER try filtering out anything on unfiltered accounts. Basically any adult should easily be able to un-filter their account through an online control panel that is maintained by the government or/and the ISP. You should provide the adult user with history of status of their connection, as well as be able to alert or warn users directly through that control panel, which could also alert to the adults personal email. It could be alerts later of suspected proxy/tor/freenet or other encrypted traffic. Just let the adults know that they might want to keep a closer eye on their children’s online activities.

    As long as you manage that filtering as a bunch of IP addresses and registered domains and registered specific content within certain mismanaged IP adresses and domains using the main DNS servers, then that should not slow the Internet experience down for anyone that are using those main DNS servers.

  75. I remember when I was growing up, I had parents. If I recall- they actually monitored what I watched, read, and what my activities were.

    I think Government involvement is a big mistake. How about you use the financial resources on the table of this idea and send it to parental education instead?

  76. I know I’m just some random guy from the internet, but here’s what I think, in a nutshell:

    It’s okay to rate websites. It’s okay to make it easier for parents to keep themselves informed on the content of media that their children might experience.

    But it’s up to the parents to choose what’s appropriate for their own children – it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the ISP, the local or national government. The opportunity for abuse is too great, without any significant benefit, other then making it easier for parents to get away with shirking their parental responsibilities.

    Hopefully all our comments help you feel out the implications of this issue.

    – m a t t

  77. Horrible idea.

    1. The managing and sorting web ratings would be an absorbent task, both fiscally and logistically. There were 2,970,000,000 web pages indexed by Netcraft as of February 2007, and 70,392,567 websites were indexed by Yahoo! as of August 2005. Google announced on 7/25/2008 that it had index over 1 trillion unique URL’s.

    2. The is no intermediary. Who is going to stop a child from entering a false age. There is nobody at the counter asking for ID.

  78. It’s absolute nonsense, the internet was created by great minds as a place free from government meddling. People who don’t have the first idea about how the internet works should not be given the chance to ruin it for everyone else.

    Cinema style ratings for websites is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve heard, it would no doubt be done in a poorly thought out and ineffectual way too, by people who don’t understand all the issues at hand.

    If you want to waste tax payers money trying to nanny citizens, telling us what we can and can’t see, why not create some government sponsored software that parents can voluntarily download to “protect” their children from online nasties. There is already commercial software like this available.

    Hands off the internet!

  79. Two points not made previously.

    Burnham (and Tom) should talk to those Australians who’ve been living with these failed censorship efforts for eight years. And not just how it has technically failed but how it’s politically failed as well.

    I’ve written about the history of how it all got started down under here http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2007/03/net-closes.html

    Secondly, censorship efforts can harm children. ‘Inappropriate blocking’ invariably means gay and lesbian youth see helpful content blocked. Young people wanting advice or support on sensitive topics like rape, incest, birth control etc. cannot find it.

    The Web is a great way to find support on these issues but you never hear much about that – just noise about suicide or facebook parties.

    Is Burnham and others making these sorts of proposals aware of the likely collateral damage to such children? And if so, how do they defend it?

    Censorware is invariably American and carries American values in their blacklists, which you can’t see.

    More about why people should be wary of censorware companies http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2007/04/how-to-disable-web-filter-software.html

  80. When will they learn the reason today’s society is going wrong is due to too much interference by government. The thought of leaving a child for 2 hours unattended on the internet is unthinkable, I never left mine unattended on the internet. Then I never stuck a video on in their bedroom and left them watching that while I sat downstairs.
    Children start school with no understanding how to communicate these days due to being left for 2 hours here or 2 hours there on their own while parents forget they are parents. I knew where my children where, what they were doing right through to them going to university or starting their own home. The fact my child at university still text me what or where she is at university.
    Children learn right from wrong from parents the more you leave them on their own unattended the less they learn from parents. Tag something as not for their age group they then go and try to find it it’s like teaching sex education in school the younger you teach the younger we seem to see pregnant girls.

    Bottom line if the parents are being good parents they will be happy to observe what the child is doing on the internet, spend quality time with the child. I would have hated having the government telling me what my child can see or not see on the WWW.
    Teach the younger parents how to be a good parent and take responsibility for their own child. Stop these silly unworkable ideas to make it easier for them to stop being a parent. Lessons should have been learnt from past history you don’t leave children unattended at all. When I was growing up there was a regular advert to keep under fives safely locked indoors just how many under fives would that advert have saved in the past 20 years?

    Start to focus on what really needs changing the way many parents fail to protect their child due to leaving unattended not controlling the citizen’s lives, rights and invading their privacy.

  81. Hi Tom,

    Please reassure Andy that as a parent of a very tech aware 10 year old I am more than happy to take responsibility for her online safety. I would appreciate him not attempting to hand hold me through this not-too-difficult task. However his advice and guidance would be fine, and, furthermore, I’m happy to contribute my ideas and knowledge to him so that he can share them appropriately.

    Thanks in advance for your support.

  82. London has some of the smartest web experts and entrepreneurs around and great to see Tom Watson engaging with them. Andy Burnham and the Govt should take note – consult with those who know what they are talking about as whoever you are talking to now clearly doesn’t.
    As others have noted, the solution to this problem will not come from Govt regulation but is much more likely to come from client side filters maintained by the community and interested parties, very much akin to Firefox AdBlock extensions.

  83. Most of the main points have already been covered intelligently above, but I wanted to add my name to the list of those who think this is yet another incredibly ridiculous example of someone with a complete lack of understanding of the subject being appointed to a position of incompetence.

    Age ratings do one thing – they make the content more desirable to those under that age. And 100% of under-18s will have far more knowledge and understanding than Mr Burnham.

    As a parent it’s eventually down to me to decide whether content is appropriate for my child – for instance, would images of violence be appropriate in a historical context rather than glamourising violence in itself?

    A more effective measure would be to fund education and encouragement for parents to actively get involved with their children.

    Is this the wrong time to admit I’ve watched films, smoked cigarettes and drunk alcohol all before the legal age, and yet still managed a productive education and career due to the support and involvement of my family etc?

  84. As many people have noted above, this is an old, unworkable, proposal.

    Mr. Watson, instead of sending Mr. Burnham a pile of material I’m sure he won’t read, could you perhaps just sit down with him and explain to him the high points? Some sort of briefing:

    0. You are not the first person to have thought of this concept. It was proposed as soon as the Internet became popular, around 1995. Given that, can you understand that there’s a problem with the idea?

    1. The Internet is international. France, Germany, etc don’t care about UK and/or US law.

    2. Nobody is stopping ISP’s from offering various child-only whitelists. Almost nobody buys it.


    This is very well-trod ground by now.

  85. The same issues are being discussed in Italy where some politicians want to bring in laws to limit the freedom of the Internet. In fact it was a comment on Beppe Grillo’s Blog – (www.beppegrillo.it) that alerted me to the existence of this idea in the UK.
    Certainly, crimes (like libel, distributing pornography etc. ) need to be dealt with wherever they are committed whether on the Internet or via other media. But don’t make it harder for the local community group to get a website up and running by obliging them to submit it to a censor for a stamp of approval! Anyway, how do you know that something “offensive” will not be added to a website the day after the “censor” has observed it?
    Why not have a great discussion with parents and young people of all ages to see what they think would be a good way of making the Internet safe for youngsters?

  86. It’s not about control or policing the Web – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. The W3C is in agreement that there’s a need for content classification and quality labelling – the second most important W3C iniaitive is the Mobile Web Initiative (http://w3.org/mobile) – of which I’m a founding sponsor. My point… to make an assertion about your site being mobileOK, you will be mandated to do so, proactively by using a method of labelling content called POWDER (formally known as Content Labels – of which I’m one of the main instigators). Here it is in plain English http://segala.com/blog/content-labels-explained-in-plain-english/

  87. “I think we do need to have a debate now about clearer signposting and labelling online because it can be quite a confusing world, particularly for parents who are trying to ensure their children are only accessing appropriate stuff.”

    Substitute “governments” and “citizens” for “parents” and “children”, and you have a clearer idea of what they’re up to.

  88. This is a good topic for debate – not that it needs it in my opinion, I’m in the “Let’s Keep The Web Uncensored” camp – and I’m sure the majority of posters on here are too – this is because we understand the web and use it everyday. It’s the people like Andy Burham, Head Teachers at schools, Principals at Universities and parents that need to be educated in “The Way of the Web”.

    Make these people aware that there are ways to get around filtering systems – provide examples, sit them down with a bunch of kids and let them show you them how to circumvent the filters.

    Parents and Educational establishments need to state what their children/students can or cannot look at on the web (leave that to them, rather than the Government). Disciplinary rules can be dished for any breaches – loss of access, bed with no supper 😉 etc.

    What this has has done rather brilliantly- and more so with Tom on board – is bring this out in the open so that comments can be made (and hopefully heard by the
    Powers That Be).

    Providing training and advice/guidance for parents and educators would be a great action from this work.

  89. The comments already contain lots of genuine issues that need addressing, as well as plenty of valid arguments against this spectacularly dim witted proposal.

    I can only add my own obersvation: suprise surpise, a politician who knows nothing about [fill in topic here] trying to score points for their own political advantage with people/Daily Mail readers [delete as applicable] who also know nothing about [previously mentioned topic].

    This is a tiresomely familiar pattern and beneath contempt – please get a grip, this is not a game.

  90. I enjoy *******, and I like to drink whisky. Some of my friends like to smoke, or bet on horses.

    Of dear, with this one post, I’ve ensured that, under Burnham’s proposal, no-one under 18 will ever be able to read any of the near 100 innocuous comments above mine.

    Note from Tom: Sorry Andy, but I’ve censored your naughty word. Irony, eh?

  91. Whilst I pretty much agree with a consensus in the comments that Andy Burnham appears to be completely illiterate about any general functioning of the intertubes, there is one small part of his idea that I think could be workable and that is an idea of a properly regulated (with government and legal backing) of a child safe limitations.

    Yes websites do continually evolve and can be hacked, etc – so one about fluffy bunnies one day could the next be full of some more extreme material. Whilst there are voluntary schemes for websites to sow that they are child safe, if the scheme was government backed (and so real fines for claiming to be part of the scheme and in reality not being so clean).

    Yes this scheme could only then be enforced against UK web property owners (or maybe EU wide), but it could be possible to limited the scheme that way if it is the only way to regulate it. This may not be easy to regulate, but websites could have to ‘earn their stripes’ with a year in sandbox or similar, with each owner personally checked out to the same standards as those looking after children physically like teachers.

    I know such a scheme could be circumvented by youngsters with enough technological know-how, I would imagine that they would b at least 11+ before having these skills (certainly for the vast, vast majority). I don’t claim this is making use of the internet as it is now, but if you think of it as a separate private learning aid that just happens to be connected via the same pipes then it could be a positive step. It could coincide with a completely different login or even child-safe bootable OS. We try to make the drug cabinet and certain unsafe chemical bottles child-proof, so why not the internet?

    Any older ratings, however, would be pointless, as the youngsters will work out how to circumvent the restrictions making them pointless (and may even lead to parents having a false sense of security).

  92. I suggest there’s already recognition in Government of the complexity of the problem.

    Take for example the related issue here of policing user-generated content.

    I spoke in May to a helpful contact in the Department of Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform who said the area was down to industry to lead on, & that while Government was looking at copyright that user generated content was a very difficult area — for a whole host of issues such as the location of servers in different jurisdictions, and the fast moving size/nature of the web preventing scoping of the problem.

  93. Clearly an idea up there along with recording every phone call or email. Save us from ourselves New Labour please!

  94. @charbax – sadly google don’t get this 100% right – try “fun adult girl” on google image search with strict filtering set to on. That’s the first example I can come up with, but I’m afraid there are others (though I have no children I do use google with safesearch on sometimes and I do find “unsuitable” material).

  95. I don’t know enough about what Mr Burnham MP has said to give a full response here. There would need to be at least a full transcript of the Telegraph interview to have a proper discussion here.

    However at the risk of exposing my lack of access to the facts here is my 10p worth.

    The number of negative posts above may just be an example of the net’s ability to “spread fears” and “rumours” leading Tim Berners-Lee himself to call for “new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources”.


    It could be worth Mr Burnham and Tim Berners-Lee having a Videoconference on web standards and semantic web before launching into these discussions.

    On an initial reading of the Telegraph article, Burnham’s suggestions seem to reiterate government policy of protecting children online through industry self-regulation. ISPs are already filtering content via the Internet Watch Foundation blacklist. What’s new here?

    There remains much discussion to be had around online safety policy particularly around child safety after Byron. Burnham has made it clear that many issues and options are being considered.

    Policy needs proper consultation which this format and many of the resulting comments don’t seem to amount to (notwithstanding the fact that it is great to see online freedoms upheld so strongly). It would be helpful if Tom Watson MP could provide an analysis of what he has learned from this discussion and how it can be applied to online policy consultation. Could these comments themselves be assessed and classified and fed into better policy response and civic engagement?

    In relation to a couple of specific points raised in the Telegraph article. Notable by its absence was the lack of reference to child and adult education around online safety as highlighted in the Byron Review. Why has Mr Burnham not mentioned education initiatives?

    Mr Burnham’s reference to industry-wide “take down times” may be helpful to service providers as there is currently much uncertainty. However, agreeing a method of identifying content to come down and timescales is difficult. We don’t want self-censorship and fear to trump free speech as occured when Boris Johnson’s blog was blocked by its service provider following an unrelated take-down notice.

    The whole classification / censorship issue seems a can of worms. However, I can’t agree from what I have seen in the Telegraph article or these comments that Mr Burnham MP’s intends to take us any closer to an Orwellian world and nor would he have the power to do so. It would be helpful if he could go the other way with Barack Obama and ensure that global online freedoms are upheld by States such as China and Iran.

  96. If the Labour government thinks that this will be an easy sell to the Obama administration, they are out of their minds. I think there are enough people like myself, who supported the Obama campaign, and contributed money to the campaign, who are very Internet savvy, who are very resistant to any perception of online censorship or government regulation of Internet content. I count myself amongst them.

    If Minister Burnham thinks that the coming transition of power in Washington will create an environment that is more receptive to this sort of regulation, he is making a grave miscalculation. Perhaps he would have been correct were we looking at another Clinton administration, but this is not the case. Even during the 90s, when Congress and the administration passed the Communications Decency Act, private citizens were able to push back attempts at Internet censorship. I do not see the current environment in the United States being receptive to sharing a regulatory environment with the United Kingdom in this area. Our laws and Constitution are significantly different than those of the UK in this area, particularly when discussing specific areas of the law, such a libel.

    I would urge the Labour government to work with the Obama administration in other areas where there is a significant need and use for cooperation. The current conflicts in Asia, for instance, will need to be addressed jointly by our two nations. Attempts to regulate content on the Internet, however, will only serve as a distraction from the real and pressing issues facing our two countries.

  97. Ideas like this make me despair that this Government really does not get the internet at all.

    One minute the Labour Government talks about our creative industries being one of the engines that will pull us out of the recession. The next minute it is threatening to snuff out one of the last bright flames in the economy by talking about ridiculous legislation.

    Some questions Andy:

    Do you plan just to apply this to UK based sites; does the Government not realise that the web is not a walled garden and it cannot force these regulations on sites that are not based in the UK; or does it plan to make the UK like China and bring in heavy censorship of the internet blocking sites that it does not approve of?

    There are so many web initiatives that the Government should be spending its time developing rather than on producing regressive legislation that won’t work. The use of collaborative tools, communities, crowd sourcing etc that would help to reinvigorate our democracy.

    So Andy, I hope this was a throw away comment aimed at pleasing the average Daily Telegraph reader and not a real attempt at a policy suggestion.

    If so you could still be one of the the brighter lights on Gordon’s Christmas tree.

  98. Burnham’s idea is moronic.

    How long before the enterprising child installs Tor or JohnDoe to circumvent his/her parents best intentions?

  99. There’s only one word that can describe Burnham’s idea. Well, okay, a few:

    Useless, Unworkable and A slippery slope!

  100. Basement Jacks said it best, wheres his head at. More ill concieved ill informed comments from an elected official. When will we get representation regarding online activites and technology that know what there talking about.

  101. Burnham is obviously technically inept.
    If he thinks that the government can censor all electronic media, it shows just how detached from reality the poor chap is. Really, he ought to resign over his embarrassingly stupid and moronic ‘ideas’.
    Only totalitarian regimes practice mass censorship. Do we want the UK to become even more totalitarian regime than it already is?
    If Burnham wants to reform something, he should tackle copyright and patent law. I suggest restricting all patents to a maximum of 5 years, and restricting copyright to 2 years. I know it would upset the powerful and corrupt vested interests, but intellectual property huckersterism has become little more than a thinly veiled form of legalised piracy.

  102. The comments here have already set out why this is such an impoverished idea but they are of little comfort when the government habit for translating impoverished ideas into bad laws is compulsive. Their track record is to press on regardless even in the face of expert advice and public opinion which does not appear to support them. I suspect therefore that this is going to turn into a messy business.

    Mr Burnham’s apparent belief that as a minister of government he is entitled to translate his personal moral values into public policy is also of concern. This apparent arrogance in office is demonstrated by other cabinet ministers (Jacqui Smith for example) but it is almost an abuse of power and certainly an abuse of position. Mr Burnham is in his position to serve the best interests of the public, not to impose his personal beliefs on them. Whilst he might use his public position to preach his personal views of morality it seems wrong and arrogant for him to seek to impose them on people by translating them into government policy or to presume that they are shared by the majority. I understand that he is a Catholic? Well, if his personal religious beliefs are an imperative to his proposals, Catholicism is not yet the single moral code for the whole of Britain. Mr Burnham does not have the authority to represent a Taliban-like fusion of state and religious morality. He and other ministers who attempt to over reach their powers in this way need to be challenged in parliament and held to account by the press.

    There does appear, however, to have been a paradigm shift in the concept of ministerial public duties. It appears to be seen by some as a mandate to pursue personal causes using the public power delegated to it. Imagine what would happen if Mr Burnham were to suddenly announce that he was using public funds to award himself a huge one-off bonus because he “categorically believed” he deserved it. I can’t make my mind up whether this shift is deliberate and cynical or just the result of having some inexperienced, immature and/or not fully rounded individuals in the cabinet. It does seem to be part of a trend where public accountability and parliamentary scrutiny is trampled in the interests of ideology. Not healthy for democracy.

  103. There are three significant issues here:

    1) The simple fact that this has been proposed countless times before in countries all over the world and yet never successfully implemented should show that it is an idea that, even if it were sound, cannot be carried out.

    2) The the person who suggested this didn’t know this speaks of a lack of understanding of how the internet works. As suggested in other comments I, as part of the Open Rights Group, would be happy to dedicate my free time to help educate MPs on technical issues such as those relating to the internet.

    3) That the person in question posted his opinion in the press without knowing, or possibly ignoring, (1) says that they are most likely simply in the market for some free easily had publicity. No-one was ever turned out of the press for criticizing the libertarian nature of the internet.

    I remain unworried by this and will remain so until one party or other proposes actual legislation. At that time ORG and others will be happy to contribute to the consultation process.

    Until then it is simply so much hot wind.

  104. Dear Mr Watson,

    I hope you will point out to Mr Burnham that the entire comment thread appears to be of two opinions: either that it is a bad idea because censorship is not a good thing; or it is unworkable.

    I think both strands of opinion are correct.

    It will be unpopular, unworkable and expensive. So don’t do it.

  105. I completely understand the concerns of Government here – I’ve worked at a major ISP and been responsible for liaising with police forces in paedophile cases where the perpetrator had used our infrastructure to move images around. There are a lot of things that make the Internet scary for legislators the World over.

    The problem is these proposals are unworkable.

    Firstly, whilst other age-rating content is static after production (films are not to this date dynamic), websites are not. That means that whilst a rating is valid right now, it won’t necessarily be 10 seconds from now. There is no way to automatically rate content.

    Secondly, as others have pointed out, this has been tried before and failed. It’s even been tried in the UK and US voluntarily before – many adult websites voluntarily marked their content as such in a way web browsers would understand, until they realised this was used bluntly by censor software to block them, and by teenagers to actively search them out (think red triangles in TV listings when C4 launched).

    There’s also the issue that it would substantially harm innovation within the web product start-up scene. Whilst incumbents have the resource to moderate content and would happily sign up, it would basically block off all small-scale start-ups from being able to use user-generated content. Given that this would stop the UK from being able to produce the next Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, or indeed any of the other top 20 web applications produced in the last 10 years, this is no light matter. Many in the industry (myself included), are struggling to make the World (investors in particular) aware that the UK could potentially be the home to the next big thing, and whilst we’re still a few years away from ‘tipping point’, this measure would kill us stone dead. In essence, I’d have to move my business operations to Estonia, Israel or another more ‘tech-friendly’ society. I suspect a few thousand other entrepreneur-innovators would be just behind me…

    Also, reducing the cost of libel action is insane – we already have libel tourists choosing to sue in UK courts because of the outdated/borderline-ridiculous way our system works, and this would compound the situation immeasurably. Making libel cheaper would not only lock up the law courts, but would in essence put at huge risk all forms of publishing (including newspapers, magazines, etc.) and as a result I expect the Government will see significant resistance to this move in the media.

    I don’t believe in criticising without offering a solution though.

    The issue here, is that all Government has to work with is legislation. When all you have is a hammer… Alas, legislation isn’t going to help here.

    Ultimately you need to analyse why this content is on the Internet in the first place. People assume that the Internet encourages perversion, violence or stupidity, but it merely reflects society as it always has been: we’ve just never had the ability to so easily see it before.

    The issues you’re trying to address are much deeper and wide-ranging than content on the Internet. I don’t envy the choices that you feel need to be made, but on the positive side the Internet is one of the most advanced self-policing, self-moderating systems on the planet (it’s just not as much as you want it to be, it would seem). We know how to fight spam (mostly), and us technologists are getting better and better at automatically identifying illegal content and dealing with it.

    One last thing: website publishers can’t take down user-generated copyright content until the copyright holder informs them as they would then identify themselves in a US court as a ‘content editor’ under the DMCA. That needs a major, major re-think. The UK legislation is equally as stupid and ill-conceived, produced as it is by MPs lobbied by copyright holders who see the Internet as a commercial threat: stop listening to what they’re whispering in your ear, they’re conning you and they don’t vote, we do.

  106. This initiative is being reported and commented on internationally, and the general consensus is that Andy Burnham is a fool.

    If he wants to display his ignorance of the internet before the international community then I suppose that’s his prerogative, but unfortunately his position in government makes him an ambassador for our country, and that is an embarrassment we can do without.

  107. This is just another ludicrous law from a Big Brother, Nanny State Government which wants to control every aspect of our lives, even down to what we are permitted to see.

    Under the guise of “Won’t Someone Think of the Children?!” they are trying to introduce censorship to the web, just like their law making it illegal to possess so-called “extreme pornography”, as if simple images are enough to make us do bad things and banning them will stop bad things happening.

    What does this cover? We don’t know.

    What will be illegal? We’re not sure.

    Should the people of this country be afraid? Yes, very, very afraid!

    “[…] while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power.

    “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the annunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?

    “Cruelty and injustice, intolerance, and depression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

    “How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

    V for Vendetta.

    Mr Watson, what do you see when you look into a mirror…?

  108. Politicians just hate things they can’t do anything about, it makes them look what they are, powerless to stop the world changing in ways they happen to dislike.

  109. Please try and persuade Burnham and Carter to learn a little about how the internet works at a fundamental level. The moment they grasp the basics, they’re going to realise what a silly idea this is and drop it like a stone.

    The other troubling aspect of this proposal is a moral one. You should not be encouraging parents to delegate responsibility to someone [or worse, something] else for what their children see or do on the internet. Once they no longer have to worry about the internet, what are they going to give up on next? There is already a worrying deficit of parental responsibility in this country as it is.

  110. Be reasonable guys, perhaps this is a great oppotunity to create jobs for lots and lots of people.
    i guess the only downside is that 2 years after pumping money and energy into the idea is that the benefits would be tangeble and the cost would probably fund the bail out of several banks. This is not a good way to create jobs, if that might possibly have been the plan, because it simply wouldn’t work.
    Plus, I do agree with reccomendations that ministers would benefit from more social interaction with the interested internet community.
    Kudos to Tom and Andy Reed for reaching out a bit.

  111. Well unless Labour plan some China style bamboo wall to stop people accessing “bad sites” then it is not going to work.

    There is plenty of software to keep the little ones safe online, although the best way for ensuring child safety and I can but assume that that is Andy Burnhams view; is that of a parent watching what they access.

    Old fashioned in these PC days but it does work.

    Although far easier to talk of cinema ratings and government nannying, but quite unworkable due to the number of sites out there.

  112. As many have already said, this system is completely unworkable and does indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works… however, that’s not the main point I want to highlight.

    What I find interesting is the suggestion (implied) that the current system for classifying films works when, to all intents and purposes, it doesn’t. As a teacher with an interest in media education, I have long since realised that the ratings system is completely ineffectual with regards to preventing young people from viewing what has been deemed ‘inappropriate’ material. Many, many kids have seen ’18’ certificate films and almost without exception, it has been with the consent of the parents. Quite often, the parents have been the ones who have provided the films in the first place.

    Of course, I believe that film classification is not actually a legal requirement, nor is it statutory measure and so probably unenforceable… a similar system for the internet will merely highlight how out-of-touch the policy makers and legislators actually are.

    A much better solution would be to allow and encourage schools to teach pupils and parents about responsible internet use in the first place… starting with the parents.

    I fear that the real reason behind this proposal is to allow the government to pass responsibility for internet useage to parents, but they are not willing to enable parents to be the responsible guides that children need.

  113. More authoritarian techno-ignorant control-freak policy. Ain’tcha sick of it ?

    Please use public money, and government time, to focus on worthwhile things instead. Yep, maybe that would be boring, mundane, unlikely to grab headlines, etc., but at the end of the day it’s what governments are there for.

  114. Cinema-style ratings would not be of much use without the means to block 18 rated sites to youngsters, which means everybody would have to prove their age to get online. This would be an unjustifiable encroachment on liberty.

    There would be huge problems with standardisation of ratings, especially where foreign sites are concerned. This would make it practically unenforceable unless foreign sites without ratings are filtered out.

    Making parents more aware of what they can do via “net nanny” software and supervising their children online would probably be more productive.

    Mr Burnham remarked in a recent article “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed”. His personal opinion should not dictate what the rest of us see.

    I think Mr Burnham would be better employed promoting culture rather than trying to micro-manage our surfing habits.

  115. What many here do not recognise is that, sadly, Burnham’s propositions *are* indeed workable. That said, it does not follow that just because something can be forced to work, it should be. The issue is not a technological one, it is an issue of legislation. I say this as an IT professional of 25+ years’ standing and who has used the internet and other communication networks since their inception.

    Burnham’s intent clearly *is* a direct attack on the freedom of speech, yet he has not as far as I can see clearly stated what his objective is, or what problem he is trying to solve.

    If he wants to achieve something of social benefit, let him eradicate MRSA and Chlostridium Difficile from the nations hospitals. These are for more dangerous to the nation’s well-being.

  116. I could tell you what kind of idiot you are for trying to impose restrictions on free speech, but then you’d have to have this page restricted or delete my entry.

    If you need a guess, it’s a seven-letter word starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet and ending in “-ing”.

  117. OK, it’s taken me several days to come up with something constructive on this, but how about:

    In another part of the government, they are working on the Digital Mentoring scheme to develop understanding of the internet for political empowerment. How about extending this with a mixture of DCMS, other public sector sources and private sector investment to include general safety and in particular family safety?

    Many people are insecure about going on the web at all because of safety concerns that can be allayed by basic awareness and monitoring of what is going on with your computer. The mentoring model is the best way to respond to people’s individual needs and give them a gateway online from where they can develop their own knowledge and understanding. I think web companies might see the benefits in breaking down barriers to web use in those parts of the community that are still offline or have little online literacy.

  118. The web is like any other communication system… you simply can’t give young children unrestricted access.

    The same is true of email, mail, phones, mobiles, TV. Adult supervision is always required.

    Filtering content is never 100% effective, so any parent would still need to supervise even a filtered service.

    And web content filtering would not prevent serious risks like grooming, so again parental supervision would still be necessary.

    The problem here is not the web, its the willingness of parents to devote time to supervising their children while using the net.

    A more effective solution is denying access to all web sites without explicit permission (a feature already present in Internet Explorer). The child is required to obtain permission to access a web site before it will be displayed.

  119. Why not do something about the content of some of the more salacious “news”papers and magazines to which many children will have access, due to their parents taking them home and leaving them around where the kids can read them? Perhaps their owners’ contributions to party funds precludes that!

  120. Thank you very much for your receptiveness. I am involved with public health and the core ethical question there applies here: do you restrict choice through legislation, or inform the public and let them decide themselves? Public health, which is significantly more mature than the internet, clearly tends to err in the direction of the latter course of action, for good reason. I suggest that internet ‘health’ policy do the same. To this end, a promotional campaign targeted at parents under the auspices of the DCSF and the DCMS would seem the most appropriate thing to do. You already have the portal to make it work: http://www.parentscentre.gov.uk, although a search for ‘online safety’ doesn’t bring up the clearest guide in the world – something with pictures and video tutorials would be more useful. Anyway, a perfect excuse for some ‘joined-up government’ if ever I saw one.

    As far as a ‘solution’ is concerned, best practice is obviously a trusting relationship with your children and having any computers based in a communal room, although I suspect that most parents would want to install content-filtering software for piece of mind (e.g. http://www.netnanny.com/). The issues are far more wide ranging than this, but a co-ordinated publicity campaign with a decent web presence would be far more effective. Combined with some targeted investment in the software industry, the campaign might even generate some jobs if someone decides to compete with the incumbent parental control software companies.

  121. JF

    Yes, I think there is a lot to learn from how we develop and apply medical ethics. Medical decisions pass a kind of reasonable test. Decisions are peer reviewed, patient reviewed and transparent. That’s a good basis to create a common understanding of digital social responsibility.

  122. “The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.” – Adolph Hitler (Mein Kampf)

    Sound familiar? And they say we don’t live in a fascist state… It starts with this, but where does it end? Silencing political opposition? How many liberties must be taken for “the net to be safe”?

    “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security” – Benjamin Franklin

    Evidently our forefathers were more enlightened than us. The internet is the last bastion of freedom in this world, and we the collective mass wish it to stay that way!

  123. Ben,

    You’ve just drawn a comparison between Arts Minister Andy Burnham and Nazi Adolph Hitler. Do you really want to do that?

    Even if you do, do you at least recognise it will make it easier for people to dismiss your position?

  124. Tom, Ben is right. He’s not saying Andy Burnham is a genocidal maniac – just revealing how absolutely dishonest Burnham is. This man doesn’t care about children. He cares about the government, and the government’s power over its people. But WE THE PEOPLE do not belong to this government. Burnham better get wise, and quickly. Bloggers and website owners are spitting blood over this.

  125. Oh come on.

    I understand why people are angry about Andy’s strongly held views but to call him dishonest of compare him to Hitler is unacceptable and completely undermines the reasonable arguments published by others in the last few days.

    Remember I promised to send him a copy of all comments. If you believe, as I do, in the wisdom of crowds, please apply a bit of common sense.

  126. I am dismayed to find Mr Burnham attempting to make policy on a subject he is showing himself to be so ignorant of. To spare us all the embarassement of this shameful lack of knowledge, please urge him to read up on internet/www history before he calls the creators of the internet (the US Dep of Defense) as good as anarchists when meeting Mr Obama’s representatives. The same goes for the developers of the original World Wide Web -highly respected scientists at the CERN project – whom his remarks are really aimed at, as it is the World Wide Web which we now call the internet.

    (I am aware commenters here know this, but
    Mr Burnham seems woefully unaware.)

    Furthermore, a little research online could also give him some more relevant information on the futility of trying to protect our children by aiming the wrong kind of measures (such as certification and/or censorship) at the wrong age group.

    This article from the February/March 2008 issue of the American Psychologist discusses the perceived and actual dangers and also the children mostly at risk:


    According to this study, the victims mostly targeted, are precisely the same adolescents who will circumvent any measures almost as fast as they are set up.

    On another note, as a mother of three sons who are interested in games, movies and surfing the net, I find myself regularly disagreeing with the existing certification scheme. We buy a lot of DVD’s and games from Germany where the very same movies might be given a higher age rating for violent content and others a much lower rating for dealing with relationship issues.

    As parents we find the ratings as regards violence too lax in the UK and the ratings as regards subjects such as love or a first kiss (which unlike most violent content are/will be within the normal range of experiences of our children) too Victorian in its delivery.

    I am certain there will be a multitude of issues deemed inappropriate by other parents which we find acceptable and vice versa – therefore, I would prefer to continue making my own decisions based on our family values on what is or is not suitable for my children. I will also continue to supervise them when online and teach them about the uses and users of the internet as they mature.

    I am a strong supporter of free speech and I will accept that this also exposes me to things that I find abhorrent/upsetting and personally unacceptable but having grown up in the former GDR I know that access to information the government does not want its subjects to know about can be vitally important when you live under the control of a repressive regime.

    I am against giving the governent even more powers to limit my civil rights. I do not trust this government (nor a conservative one) not to abuse any such measures as supposedly aimed at protecting children but easily used for other purposes.

    This has already happened with parts of legislation brought in during the last few years which were supposedly to protect us from terrorists only.

    I am, however, grateful to find at least one MP actively engaging with the people these measures are aimed at. Thank you.

  127. WOW!!
    I thought Senator Conroy over here in Australia was a bonehead, but you guys over there in the UK got the cream of the crop!!

    A few things came to mind when reading about this ridiculous proposal.

    1. Why does a British Minister have to ask America if they are allowed to do such a thing? Is the UK Americas bitch just as much as Australia is?

    2. The apparent disregard of knowledge on the subject of the internet points out THEE fundamental problem with government.

    3. After 15 years of self governance by the internet community of which during this time government had no issues, why would they all of a sudden be interested in filtering the information to the populous now?

    This bonehead idea about classifying internet sites in the same manner you would a film, supremely highlights the mental vagaries affecting the institution of government.
    The people and the world have evolved and Government has and probably will not.

    The government has lost all abilities to communicate with its own Citizens to the level of reducing their importance and public respect to a labeling of CONSUMER!!

    While governments continue to perceive the public as criminal, we can expect nothing more than constant attempts to enslave, manipulate and control.

  128. @148 – Tom you seem to put the importance of such literature to folly or deem it preposterous when it clearly outlines the current mode of conduct on a governmental level.

    There are changes for the internet being proposed worldwide and they are all being executed in similar fashions under the guise of “Save The Kids” when the legislation is nothing about the kids.

    You ask people to see the government as a visionary, a purporter of truth and sage guidance when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

    Just as the “Hitler Quote” points out – History and the internet has shown us a great many things that would otherwise have passed us by.
    Buggered if i am going to let a politician decide my civil liberties while being clueless to the issues at hand.

  129. Tom, firstly although I may disagree with your political leanings, I want to thank you for the open forum. I promise not to use rude words.

    Secondly, what Mr Burnham is proposing is censorship, pure and simple. For “nasty” web content, there are existing laws which covers the publication of pornography, incitement to violence and racial hatred. Make use of the existing legislation.

    Thirdly, this will be seen as an attempt to silence bloggers, particularly those dissenting voices who do not agree with the government of the day. This is an insidious and disgusting attack on free speech – already there are EU proposals to licence bloggers which will be met with derision and resistance. Bloggers will not be silenced and we reserve the right to criticise and where deserved, ridicule.

    Mr. Burnham would do well to trawl the legislation already in place. If that is too laborious (hardly surprising given the one law per day policy of this government) then I suggest he seek the advice of the attorney general and Justice Minister’s office if he wishes to clamp down on child pornography and the like.

    Children are hardly likely to “stumble” across pornography on the interweb, more needs to be done to educate parents about allowing their children unsupervised access to the internet rather than chucking wadges of cash at some sort of “system” to control or rate internet content.

  130. This is a pre-text to set up a new ratings agency for all media with the involvement or guidance from OFCOM.
    However, It should be considered to abolish the 18 cert because it is too high or counter productive.

  131. It’s just another stealth tax that anyone owning a website will have to pay before it goes live; for age appropriate rating purposes of course.

  132. Arthur Rusdell-Wilson on 12.27.08 at 10:39 am

    “Governments have their place, but if they really waqnted to be useful they would have controlled the banking industry.”

    You’re another one of those morons that don’t understand the banking industry. Your country has a central banking system, stupid. They’ve been mercantilistic wth banks for ages. The system is flawed, we shouldn’t have a central bank to begin with.

  133. I can only add my voice to those who say that this idea is, unremarkably, stupid. Another reason, among the many why I, a 100% Labour man, could never vote for this lot again!

    I have blogged on two occasions why – one just for the fun of it and the other thinking Burnham wasn’t serious, but was.

    Why does he want to leave his children unsupervised while online? I know that my kids are monitored in what content they can see, that is called parenting! And he is a government minister – please tell me how he got that job? There is so little education as is in the UK – but adding a little education about what parents can do to stop the ‘kidlets’ abusing their time would be worth while. In his interview he said something about beheadings – did he Google that or just listen to one of the juniors saying that is what they had seen?

    But of course, what this idiot fails to see is the ‘net is a global thing – much the reason why I got a grotesque video from someone in SA, ON MY PHONE! What does he propose next, no one have access to mobile phones with internet access?

    I knew that the quality of UK politicians had gone down the toilet – but I didn’t think that they had reached around the U bend.

    We could go on for hours why this is a stupid idea – yet, stupid is as stupid does, he Burnham has made the case as to why the UK has the worst government officials one notch above George Bush.

    This government is an embarrassment to all who are British.

  134. The idea is ludicrous. The content of websites changes constantly, and many accept public submissions. It would be impossible to effectively moderate that vast amount of content online. How about the money gets spent on educating parents (and our culture minister) about how the internet works and how to keep their children away from the nasty bits.

  135. Burnham’s plan would destroy Britain’s e-commerce industry overnight, and last I checked, e-commerce was winning where conventional retail was losing.

    Aside from the logistical problems and technical fallacies, if by some miracle he did actually manage to implement it, it would cripple the economy.

    I’m not really sure anybody wants that.

  136. It won’t work, it could waste huge amounts of time and money and there will be a massive opportunity cost in pursuing an unworkable solution and ignoring the viable options.

    Why it won’t work:

    – Manual classification is impossible unless you annex an entire country and employ them all classifying websites.

    – Automatic classification is unworkable because you’d get way to many false positives and alienate the web community

    – The architecture of the web sees censorship as an error and works round it. It was designed to withstand nuclear attack – government classification won’t touch it

    – Film classification works because there’s a gatekeeper (cinema, shop) which can be held to account for who it allows access to media content. No such gatekeeper exists on the web

    – It will give parents a false sense of security for their children on the web

    – It will take resources away from more seriously viable solutions such as educating parents on how to protect their children online

    – It will damage the government’s reputation for being able to advise on web use

    There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea. PLEASE don’t do it.

    I’ve written a blog on the subject here: http://is.gd/elOg

  137. As someone who has been writing about the Internet for fifteen years now, I obviously agree with the majority sentiments expressed above: the idea simply won’t work at multiple levels. If attempted, it will be costly, and cause great collateral damage in terms of maligning perfectly harmless sites.

    But carping is easy: the real issue is what should be done instead.

    I think the key to solving not just this problem, but myriad other technology-related issues, is to tap the huge reservoir of expertise that exists both in the UK and elsewhere. It is simply folly to attempt to come up with solutions to complex problems ex nihilo; instead, we need to build on what people already know, and what they’ve already tried. This means getting people involved, at all levels.

    This would help not only in the current case, but generally when the UK government is grappling with the intersection of policy with technology. Sadly, previous decisions involving computers, the Internet and related areas have frequently ignored salient facts that have subsequently vitiated the proposed schemes.

    In summary, please don’t even think about implementing this kind of classification until more general structures are in place to help arrive, collaboratively, at ones that will work better.

  138. Does seem an ill thought out proposal, not much to add to the general sentiment here. I am sure there must be things higher on the agenda than this that will have a more immediate impact on the quality of our lives.

  139. This is a horrific proposal, from the same mindset that has given us rampant CCTV, ID cards, targets instead of quality and post office closures. No doubt they will get a private firm to rate sites, as inconsistently as exam papers were recently. As members of family died to keep this country free, I’m pretty angry about this censorship. If education was still a priority, there would be no reason for this.

  140. I can see why a government might be interested in this idea politically – the notional protection of kids, shows awareness of new media, offer of regulation – but surely not at this time.
    Technically its probably unworkable and would need an unlikely global buy-in. But even if it were, could certification be anything other than a box ticking exercise? I’ve just watched Dark Knight – great movie – a 12 cert? Perhaps in terms of a paper exercise, but not in spirit.
    In the light of recent failures of other regulated areas, perhaps less concern about certificates, tables, awards, and superficial regulation and more time spent on education and training is the key. Else, all that will be produced is a false sense of security.

  141. Unworkable? I don’t think so. There’s the community-maintained database of speed cameras (where TomTom users can download updates so that the SatNav has a good chance of knowing when the next speed camera is). There’s no reason why we can’t have community-maintained whitelists too. Government controlled, probably best not, but community (whoever community you are in, with acceptable level of trust) is better.

    Some websites can be too dynamic that they can’t be relied upon to remain U-rated or 18-rated (e.g., BBC.co.uk comments), but the parent can ask the computer to check text and any links against the community-maintained whitelists and any intelligent filtering that is available.

    It won’t be “perfect”, totally workable, but if the web surfing is 50% safer for the kid, I’m all for it.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve had the misfortune of accidentally visiting very upsetting webpages that caused mental scars, so even though I’m nearly 30, I’m keen to be warned before I stumble upon such webpages.

    Like I said, encourage parents and community to get together and make the web safer (not completely safe) for their kids like TomTom has for drivers, instead of getting the government to maintain it.

  142. An additional comment on the issue to which Mr Burnham is really addressing himself: child protection on the web.

    I’d suggest that he go back and really read the Byron report – it has some sensible suggestions and is really worth reading beyond the Executive Summary. NB she didn’t mention classifying websites.

    The key issue is parents’ knowledge and skills.

    Andy seems to be upset that he can’t just leave his child in front of the internet in the same way as he does the TV, and this is perhaps the source of his confusion. The web and TV are profoundly different media, despite both involving screens.

    That a government minister is this much in the dark shows just how clearly we need to ramp up information about this area of parenting. Perhaps we should start with a private seminar for MP parents?

    Sadly, since the government made parenting education a punishment (parenting orders) in the late 90’s, it’s very hard to promote good, useful information to parents – parents have, if anything, hardened themselves against ‘advice from government’ as a result.

    However, given that UK housewives spend more leisure time on the internet than any other social group in Europe, it shouldn’t be too hard to reach mums with some well thought out content on child safety online. How about partnering with mumsnet, netmums etc? They’ve a wealth of knowledge.

    There are even a few services that are reaching a decent number of fathers, like the sites I work with – Dad Info and Odadeo – so you could work with us too.

    There are some pretty simple messages to get across, like…er.. don’t leave your child alone on the internet for 2 hours! Don’t allow wifi access in their rooms… keep net use in a public area of the house… teach your kids basic rules about privacy….

    The key point is that protecting children online is a parental responsibility, not a government one – so let’s focus on the real locus of action – parents. Dr Byron makes some pretty good points about helping children develop their own resiliance as well… but again, the key is parents.

    The most useful thing the government could do would be to put some resources and talent behind efforts to bring the UK’s parents up to speed on how to ensure that their kids are not exposed to the kind of material that they don’t want them to see.

    Not an easy win – no simple piece of legislation here, no low hanging fruit from which to bounce onwards and upwards in the career path, but long term, hard work and difficult, but parents are the people who can protect their children according to their own values, not Culture Ministers.

    I’ve read all of the 160 plus comments and every single one is against the proposed idea – I wonder if that will be heard in Whitehall? It would be extraordinary if it wasn’t.

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

    An idea that is so stupid as to be laughable.

  144. I agree with the tenor of the majority of the comments above: unworkable, misguided, counter-productive and indicative of a general lack of understanding of what the internet is and how it functions.

  145. I can see (vaguely) where he is coming from but it would be a pointless exercise and a waste of time and money.
    If he has money and time to spend, spent it on something positive, maybe a campaign that shows ideas for how parents can keep an eye on their children’s internet activity. Namely help to empower parents to do all this stuff themselves? Or, just maybe, drop the whole idea and spend money opening up public data sources, because if he is serious about copyright and the internet…

    Crazy, I know…

  146. I have to echo many of the comments above. The difficulty with this type of debate, as with many, is that positions are often deontological / categorical positions where one’s beliefs are based on ranking rights and duties (that is they are not consequential arguments at root).

    Much of what we see in technology discourse is a clash between the duty to protect the child vs the right of free speech. The argument that it is guardians that have the duty to do the protection rather than configuring the technological landscape often does not get very far as if one is weighing protection over speech then changing technology is fine – as noted above such arguments are based on principle not outcome.

    Having said that I think that the approach of the Byron Review is applicable here in terms of child / guardian / technology relations. What’s more the notion of risk that Byron takes on board is one also to note.

    One might also argue that there are a number of other goods that come from a free internet, such as innovation etc etc.

    Lastly, on these points, the next step along the path of internet control is full internet filtering such as that adopted by Australia, which I’m sure most comentators here would see as a very negative outcome.

    As a citizen I would rather live in a more free but more risk based world.

  147. “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.”

    A space that authoritarian or just thoughtless and clumsily interfering Governments couldn’t reach. Libel is not an emerging issue: it is an issue that has all but gone away thanks to the Internet. Or at least it would have gone away if it weren’t for the archaic and unjust libel law which serves only the interests of malefactors who might otherwise have reason to fear the openness and freedom of the ‘net¹. Likewise, intellectual property law has been hijacked by SIGs demanding from Governments (and in sneaky undemocratic international fora) changes that are damaging to the public interest and often even damaging to their own narrow interests, and it has also been abused for the purpose of censorship of free speech on the Internet.

    “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”

    Yes it is. Find the harmful content and shut it down. Let everything else well alone. Make laws that empower the law-abiding and responsible majority instead of disempowering us and facilitating unwarranted control over our activities. What you have done so far and seem to be planning more of is undermining respect for government and the law.

    ¹ http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/07/15/censored-by-money/

  148. How would you control websites with constantly-changing content (eg Blogs)? Would the creator of a blog have to return to their blog every 30 minutes or so, in case someone had added some adult-related content?

    Some people just don’t have a clue when it comes to technology…

  149. Dear Sir/Madam,

    Please don’t let Andy Burnham think for a second that he can control the Internet through legislating it into submission. To do so would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. No good comes from such short-sightedness, BLINDNESS.

    Thank you,
    Online Freedom

  150. The only thing that puts me at ease here is that what he is proposing (regarding age certification) is completely impossible.

    More worrying is the libel law issue. The last thing society needs is a furthering of the blame someone, entitlement culture.

    If you want to know just how bad the existing laws are I suggest you look into the cases of football clubs in England suing their fans for things they posted on a fan forum (my club Coventry was one, but I’ve heard of others).

    If you sue someone for insulting you on the Internet, then you are doing waaay more damage to your reputation than any text could.

  151. This suggestion is as fantastic as it is childish, and the proposer apparently shows absolutely no understanding of the medium he faces. If Burnham believes that the web=the net, he has an awakening around the corner.

    It might be worth this childish politician taking a look at another substantial part of the net, Usenet , for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the massive amount of groups and traffic.

    It is even more difficult to censor Usenet outside of moderated groups; parts of Usenet are made up of binary groups which are made of Burnham’s worst nightmares and more; it is possible to post the most libellous, seditious, offensive […] material in Usenet and never be identified, using cypher punk and mixmaster remailers. There are even more secure means under development, and I can move around the web completely undetected.

    I had an obsessive follower for about 12 years, who made an art out of doing these things. There is as yet nothing to be done under the circumstances, and I do believe it would be necessary for all governments to inflict complete control over the net. I frequently wonder if there is an O’Brien in our government.

    Then there is also the problem of cultural relativism. Although I realise the Labour government seems keen to inflict it on us via the medium of a poly legal system, such a thing would be impossible to manage, since there are things that can be done in some countries and absolutely must not be in others. Our age of consent would raise eyebrows in some parts of the English speaking world, and would seem illiberal in others.

    Which standard to adopt, and in which direction? What of the culture of people at the viewing end who are not in their country? Do you see where this is going?

    Then there is the matter of material spoken in other languages, in which the spoken material would give offence and contravene local legislation. What on earth does Burnham propose to do about that, never mind the other problems? I cite Kenneth Williams’ use of Polari in “Round the horn”, broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 to *millions* and making fools of the system with humorously outrageous comments. It was all a question of *language*.

    Moving on, if one area of the medium is somehow censored, people will gravitate back to the older more untouchable areas of the net, and his efforts will be bypassed. Worse still, those areas still used by some us and left untouched by the new ‘kooks’ will be deluged by stupidity; meaning, “minister I don’t care about your problems, don’t divert them in my direction, OK?” Some of us had enough of AOL users, who by and large moved on. It would be pleasant if they stayed there.

    Then there is the cost of course. How many millions of pounds does this naïve man suggest the tax payer spends on propping up this impossible venture? It will cost a substantial amount to do this. Or is this a New Labour job creation scheme, as well as diversion from the headlines? Surely the money would be better spent on urgent projects, like sorting out that wasteland we call NHS dentistry, and I could name a few more. Interested?

    Will he also argue that government should have the right to censor people’s activities in their own homes with invited guests? He is very close to this, and I for one do not wish to end up feeling like a latter day Winston Smith, with cameras on every street corner tracing me, looking through windows even, and my activities online monitored and sieved because of the wisdomlessness and the exceptional online inexperience of a Labour politician.

    When ministers begin to prate in this manner it is usually because their government is in some kind of difficulty and reaching the end of its life, and lacks sufficiently talented new blood to concentrate on more demanding and important issues.

    No; the onus here is on parents. Just as they could have prevented obesity, fiscal ineptitude, alcholism and violence by appropriate parenting, they can be effective here. If you are a politician, interfere at your peril, unless you lay down a minimum standard setup for a PC where children are involved, but even that will be difficult.

    There is a simple way to solve this problem; if parents want to control what their children see then they should pay for the appropriate controlling software. It is just possible to do it using free stuff <and I would recommend that the /Minister/ takes a look at news:alt.comp.freeware.discussion and news:alt.comp.freeware where he can even post requests for information incognito.

    Use these facilities, commercial products and the cooperation of ISPs .

    There are plenty of free news servers that he can use, and if he doesn’t know of any then Google is his friend. When he has done a bit of this then he may have come of digital age.

    I am *not* prepared to pay for this, parents should be and ought to pay for it, if they do not have the brains to find software that will control the flow of information in their systems. Least of all because a minister who has waded hopelessly out if its depth is not prepared to zip it.

    The people responsible are the parents and their ISPs, not the hapless tax payer. Make parents and their ISPs talk about how to set up a PC, and don’t allow yourself to be carried away with unfortunate pipe dreams.

  152. Despite what the nay-sayers would have you believe, this issue has already been solved by RFC 3514 (RFCs are Internet standards). It just needs enforcing.

    “Firewalls, packet filters, intrusion detection systems, and the like often have difficulty distinguishing between packets that have malicious intent and those that are merely unusual. We define a security flag in the IPv4 header as a means of distinguishing the two cases.”

  153. > Unworkable? I don’t think so. There’s the community-maintained database of speed cameras (where TomTom users can download updates so that the SatNav has a good chance of knowing when the next speed camera is). There’s no reason why we can’t have community-maintained whitelists too.

    1. There are a few thousands (tens of thousands?) of speed cameras.

    There are hundreds of millions of web sites, and trillions of web pages.

    Collecting the speed camera data is a far smaller job (maybe a million times [or more] less work involved) than collecting web page data.

    2. Collecting speed camera data just involves recording a grid reference.

    Classifying a web page, requires some sort of judgement process. For example, depicting beheading was Burnham’s example of a web page he’d like blocked.

    Assuming we still live in a basically free society… we can’t just block any web page about beheading – what about pages about the French revolution? What about pages that are anti-capital punishment? What about pages about the history of capital punishment on wikipedia? What about a movie review of the film Highlander (which includes beheading?)?? etc., etc. Somebody would need to view each page, and make a value judgement against whatever the criteria area.

    3. Web pages change constantly. Somebody needs to re-review each page on a regular basis. It’s not like DVDs where once released that’s it.

  154. If Mr Burnham would like some lessons in how to crank the interwebs, I’d be more than happy to show him, and to introduce him to a wide range of exceedingly clever people (sometimes known as ‘geeks’), who can tell him – or maybe even show him – why his idea is daft, unworkable (and… er… entirely against all principles of free speech).

    It seems that Burnham suffers from the same illusions that many other non-technical people do – so can someone point out to him, please, that the internet does not run on magic psychic fairies. And even if it did, his idea is still stupid and wrong.

  155. What age classification would this blog be given?

    If I (hypothetically) posted a few rude words in this comment, would the blog have to be reclassified and blocked from view?

    Totally unworkable.

  156. Best quietly let this one drop. Spend it on teaching critical thinking instead, kids will be able to to identify between trash on the internet /and/ in white papers.

  157. I hope Mr. Burnham will now realise just how unwanted (never mind unworkable) his plan of Internet censorship is. It is plainly clear, even to those with a modest knowledge of how the internet works, that it his plans are virtually impossible anyway.

    As for his plan to involve Mr. Obama for global “standards” he needs to learn that the USA have tried it all before (Communications Decency Act for one) and get it all struck down because of the first amendment.

    Can we have such protections here please ?

    Why can’t you put people in positions of responsibilty WHO KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING ? It is clear Mr Burnham knows next to nothing about the internet, and perhaps even less about the American Constitution.

    What really annoys me, is that the government would probably hold some bogus “consultation”, and then ignore the results of individual opinion anyway, just like they did, with the so called “Dangerous Pictures Act”

    What the government should now do is call a general election because everyone is sick to death of them, and their repression. One new criminal offence which could result in imprisonment every day since they got into power and started to ruin this country.

    A crime a day, keeps the people at bay.

    Is that New Labours policy ?

    “We are not the masters!” Tony Blair, when first elected Prime Minister.

    What a joke that’s turned out to be!

  158. Mr Watson wrote:

    “area but I promise you I will forward your views to Andy Burnham and Lord Carter.”

    Since my last comment, I couldn’t help but wonder…

    Why do they need the comments forwarding at all ? Why not send them the URL for this page, and let them read the comments for themselves ? Or don’t they know how to use web pages on the internet ?

    Send them this:


    This page should be mandatory reading for all MPs who are going to support increased censorship.

  159. By simply typing in ‘www.bbc.co.uk’ and then ‘www.fbi.gov’ I have ‘travelled’ thousands of miles between who controls these two websites. All by typing a few letters on my keyboard.

    Why can’t the people who make the laws understand this? The internet doesn’t adhere to our notion of physical location.

  160. There are many issues here, firstly has Mr Burnham ANY idea that the Internet is a GLOBAL phenomenon?

    As the vast majority of websites originate from overseas, how do you go about convincing EVERY OTHER country in the world to get their citizens to rate their websites content?

    Even if other countries did agree to some sort of voluntary rating system, how on earth would you get a consensus, owing to the differant standards other countries have regards to “acceptability”? This would be virtually impossible.

    I think the real problem here is what material Mr Burnham considers as being “acceptable for public consumption”. Maybe he should take a look at other countries and find why they have no problem allowing its citizens access to the exact same material he claims ‘shouldn’t be on the internet in the first place’.

    Just because parents can’t be bothered to supervise their children when they’re online is not an excuse to try and restrict material meant for adults. The internet was never designed to be a childrens playground.

    In what is supposedly a free country, I find it odd that Mr Burnham and this government seem to be getting ideas from the likes of China and Saudi Arabia when it comes to dealing with content they don;t personally approve of.

  161. Why would any democrat wish to do this?
    Only a fascist would seek to introduce such curbs on free expression online.
    I use the word advisedly. To me Andy Burnam is a fascist, merely for suggesting this. Period.
    We have seen a flood of ill-advised legislation on various forms of expression over the past ten years.
    The rise of autocracy is plain to see.
    One need only look at suthe ban on demonstrations outside parliament to get the measure of what is going on here. Hell, even utterly harmless trainspotters are being interrogated in their thousands under so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation, clearly designed to intimidate.
    Meanwhile sexual minorities such as the BDSM community are being singled out to be made examples of by a surveillance state keen to demonstrate its power.
    It is unsavoury individuals such as Andy Burnham who are driving this.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if soon we saw Mr Burnham strutting about in a colonels uniform bristling with medals, whilst wearing sunglasses, of course…
    Hard to believe, I was once a Labour voter.
    Never again. People like Andy Burnham have seen to that.

  162. I’m having dinner with Lord Carter next week, and I think I will raise this subject with him.

    How can he educate his boss so that he does not make the whole deparment seem either duplicitous or badly advised – by Lord Carter?

  163. This daft idea is just about another junior minister trying to make a name for himself. Making laws, especially censorial laws, is seen as a measure of a ministers virility. This is not about protecting anyone, the internet is not “evil”, though it may contain bad things, it is being set up as another bogeyman to give ministers the excuse to “act”. All ministerial actions should be scrutinised rationally and sceptically, laws should only be made when a credible, rational case is put, not when a wannabee minister tries to create a silly scare-story. Clearly the best and most effective protection for children online must come from parental monitoring, not more mad attempts at social engineering by law.

  164. To be honest, i am now plainly sick of politicians trying to control what we, a supposedly free people, are allowed to view, especially in the privacy of our own homes.

    The BBFC refuses to classify certain video films, even though their legal status remains unclear, because then such material never gets put before a court, preferably one consisting of a jury.

    Now because of the internet, the Labour Government is going to turn certain individuals into criminals for simple possession of certain visual material. This is even when NO HARM can be shown to be done to anyone involved in the creation of that material. This was because of one murderer, even though it wasn’t shown that the material in his possession actually caused him to murder. Indeed, I am sure that many more people that him possess such material, and they DON’T go around murdering people or harming them.

    A bogus consultation (which I have the offical results for) resulted in the MAJORITY those individuals who responded to it, choosing rejecting all the proposals. The government clearly DID NOT get the results it wanted. No matter. New Labour railroaded them through, into law, anyway. What sort of democracy is that for goodness sake ? They’ve never even properly shown the harm. OUR internet should be free of government interference, and the only material it should be illegal to possess, is that uniquely horrendous class of material involving the abuse of children. It should END right there.

    The Labour Government is supposed to obey the European Convention On Human Rights, which THEY enshrined into law. It provides for freedom of expression. Any restriction has to be “more than necessary” and strictly justified.

    Does it obey it ? Personally I don’t think it does.

    The government have justified NOTHING in my opinion.

    Please Mr Watson and your fellow politicians, kindly respect the freedom we were supposedly born with.

  165. Thank you for inviting people to give their views.

    It’s already possible for parents to choose to use filtering software. I have no real problem if the Government want to help make some “official” standard that these packages can use. Internet access can be a useful tool for children, but it’s unclear why anyone thinks that leaving them with unrestricted and unsupervised access is a good thing (I wasn’t allowed a TV in my room until a certain age). If an ISP wants to offer an optional “child-friendly” service, then that’s fine too.

    It’s unclear whether these ratings are meant to be mandatory? The statement “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed” is very worrying if he is talking about adults, not children.

    A mandatory scheme poses all sorts of problems: the number of websites is in the billions, far more than films. The requirement for classification would now be a burden not just on companies, but any individual who puts up a webpage. Who will pay for it? What about the vast number of sites not hosted in the UK? What will happen for unclassified pages? How will a site be handled that has a large range of different pages (e.g., LiveJournal or MySpace, where every person with an account may have a different kind of material posted)? What about when a webpage is updated? Most websites are updated continually, and this is especially a problem with user-generated content.

    Whilst some sites may show videos, many are purely text. Would the Government consider introducing a ratings system for books? Such a thing would likely be considered outrageous. A requirement for classification of the written word is worrying, whether it’s on paper, or the Internet.

    How long before a Internet equivalent to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, that made classification mandatory, and allowed material to be censored for adults?

  166. Getting a film or a video game reviewed for a censor isn’t cheap. If they do push this forward (Labour are well-known for doing things against major public opinion) then the expense for website will be immense. Most website creators (with any sense) would leave UK (and possible US) hosting services and host outside the arm of the law. It shows that ministers know nothing about the area they are supposed to be in charge of.

    In their final gasps, Labour seem intent on wrecking the country!

  167. I think it is a good idea if used in the right way. For example it would be beneficial if instead of banning certain sites there was just an icon added to internet explorer next to the search bar showing that sites classification (eg G PG M MA R X XX XXX or my personal favourite XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX)

  168. Its all very well trying to introduce such a system but how would it be policed?
    Are we relying on parents to do this? I ask as many couldn’t give a ** whatever their kids are doing, drinking, smoking, out all hours and so on. Why should they worry about what they access on the net?

    Not all kids of course not but a significant number that are increasing every year. Social cohesion is falling apart before our very eyes.

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