UK Culture Secretary Fails Internet

In a terrible indictment on the UK government, Andy Burnham (Culture Secretary) demonstrates some fundamental gaps in his knowledge of both the mystical internet and what freedom of speech means.

From the BBC:

Film-style age ratings could be applied to websites to protect children from harmful and offensive material, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has said.
Mr Burnham told the Daily Telegraph the government was looking at a number of possible new internet safeguards.
He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed.

Briefly defending him, Mr Burnham has only suggested it as an option. But that is as far as my charity will go.

First things first. Film style age ratings do not “protect” anyone from anything. Browser based implementations (such as blocking your browser from viewing certain ratings) would prevent people from seeing “offensive” material but that is a different matter. Film style age ratings are far from 100% successful in stopping people seeing offensive films (have you seen Mama Mia?) and they are only moderately sucessful in stopping people seeing age-inappropriate content. Why would they work on the internet?

Despite being culture secretary, Mr Burnham appears unaware that the internet is global in nature. This website is written by British people, hosted on a German server and has 60% of its traffic from the USA. Who gets to say what is, or isnt, appropriate here? Harmful content is very culture-specific and by its nature, the internet skips over these boundaries. Do we censor information that the Iranians find offensive? Or the North Koreans? Or southern-US Baptists? Who gets to choose what is harmful? What gives that person the right to say to me what is harmful for my children?

There are some common standards that could be applied, but I suspect there are less of these than Mr Burnham thinks there are. Some cultures think it is acceptable for people to watch criminals being executed, others don’t. Supporters of capital punishment talk about the death of the criminal serving as a deterrent to others. This only works if others know of the death, which is why most executions of this nature are public. Is it harmful (in this context) for people to see the punishment carried out? It is “harmful” in the eyes of a culture that does not condone the death penalty, but why should that culture control the internet?

One thing that screamed out at me was the idea that a video clip of a beheading was unacceptable, rather than the beheading itself… But, in my charitable mood that might have just been a turn of phrase.

The madness continues:

[Mr Burnham] also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Wow. So the UK and US will make a pact that dictates the rules for Australian websites? That sounds fair. What about Iranian websites translated into English? This is mind-numbing madness. Hopefully the US government is technologically literate enough to tell Mr Burnham to boil his head for a few hours. Equally, most video clips showing beheadings are on foreign language websites. What control does the US have over them (short of invading, although admittedly the US rarely stops short of that…).

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

Another bit of madness. The internet is not a parent. It is not even a child minder. Parents need to be able to educate and assist their children, not rely on badly-thought out “ratings schemes.” Parents need to sit with their child as they surf the internet. Its like anything children do – if you abandon your child to do it, you have no control over what they do. You may think you have some say, but you dont. Take the ratings scheme: most children who are able to surf un-assisted will be able to change web-browers to one that ignores the ratings. Or better still, will be able to enter a URL without a .uk or .com ending where the UK/US RULE is ignored. Technologically backward parents will not be able to implement a control to prevent the child switching to [Lynx|Amaya|Chrome|Opera|FireFox|Mozilla|Safari|Etc]. Does Mr Burnham think every browser coder will be willing to implement a strong age-ratings control without new ones spawning up? Is he that foolish?

The final bit of oddness is: [Emphasis mine]

He went on to say it was time to review the accessibility of certain content on the internet and insisted he was not trying to curb free speech.
His plans are likely to anger those who advocate the freedom of the worldwide web.
You can still view content on the internet which I would say is unacceptable. You can view a beheading,” he said.
“This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it, it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people.”

For a culture secretary, Mr Burnham is woefully ignorant of what “freedom of speech” means. Personally I am opposed to beheading people. I find the death penalty for any crime offensive. Not everyone shares my opinion and, as a result, there are websites where you can read about executions. There are even websites that support the death penalty. I would say they were unacceptable. Does that mean they should be blocked from your browser? No, it means I shouldn’t view them. If I find something offensive, then I shouldn’t look at it. With my children, I sit with them to educate them about what they see. Should I accept your view of what is acceptable for them?

Despite what Mr Burnham says, freedom of speech is not about being free to say things that he (or anyone else) finds acceptable. I find political diatribes offensive and I find religious websites offensive. Will Mr Burnham have them removed? Or would that be a violation of the concept of Freedom of Speech? (I suspect the answer is yes)

The world is full of things which people will find offensive. I find children dying of hunger in Africa unacceptable. Does that mean we ban video clips of it (there go those Oxfam adverts) or does it mean we try to prevent it happening in the first place?

Mr Burnham is right to be offended by the video clips of beheadings. So why dont we prevent the beheadings?

I am sorry, Mr Burnham. As culture secretary you fail.

6 thoughts on “UK Culture Secretary Fails Internet

  1. *sigh* It seems that the UK and USA both have difficulties resisting their paternalistic instincts. I have no desire to live as an adult in a Nanny State. Hopefully, enough people share that sentiment with me to prevent stupid ideas like Burnham’s to actually gain traction.

  2. *sigh* It seems that the UK and USA both have difficulties resisting their paternalistic instincts. I have no desire to live as an adult in a Nanny State. Hopefully, enough people share that sentiment with me to prevent stupid ideas like Burnham’s from actually gaining traction.

  3. Fortunately it can gain as much traction as it likes – it is inherently unworkable.

    A ratings scheme would only work if browsers were developed to implement it and you could just use a different browsers. A system like this already exists (PICS) but so few sites use it that no one really pays it any attention.

    One option would be for the browser to default to treating all sites as “Adult” or “Inappropriate” unless there was a mark saying otherwise – but this is still avoided by changing browser (Amaya anyone?). Forcing ISPs to block sites based on ratings would be possible but again would demand people self-certified themselves as “inappropriate” or had a default block action and people had to certify otherwise. This would be a field day for legal action though – each time a site was incorrectly flagged…

    Another possible alternative is to put pressure on ISPs to content filter but I suspect that would become unworkable very quickly unless we develop the great firewall of Britain. I am unaware of any packet sniffing software that can tell if a YouTube video is a beheading or some 16 year old singing. (makes you wonder which is worse….)

  4. I’m wary of this for the reason you mention at the end, TW. You’re right, ratings won’t prevent access to objectionable content. However if it gains traction does this concede that policy, control over access to content, is correct and that it’s a matter of how this is acheived?

    A Great Firewall of Australia has been proposed – it’ll protect the kids ( And you could use it for the War on Terror. After all no-one could object to laws against terrorists could they? The data on what you’re looking at, which might be personal communication or online banking, will of course be held in the government’s secure hands away from abuse. So only terrorists or pornographers (and anyone using the internet in the UK) have anything to fear.

    If only we had laws in place that already made possession of illegal images a crime…

  5. Surely it is no coincidence that goverments that really want to limit how much their citizens can find on the web tend to set up proxy servers to block or at least throttle the flow of unwelcome material.

    Anyone who wants to publish online or set up an internet businness needs to be very clear what his/her vision is and be true to that. Self-censorhip maybe, but if you want to be seen by as many people as possible you need to decide on your vision and stick to it. Who is to say that what you write won’t be offfensive and blocked somewhere in the world.

    Trimming has to stop somewhere, and internet publishers should stick to their authenic voice.

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