The UK culture secretary Andy Burnham has recently spoken out about making the internet safer by adopting a rating system similar to the movie ratings. His take on the web: “quite a dangerous place.” According to the Telegraph:
His plans to rein in the internet, and censor some websites, are likely to trigger a major row with online advocates who ferociously guard the freedom of the world wide web.
Burnham’s response to fears of censorship:
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. … It worries me – like anybody with children. … Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do. This isn’t about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven’t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around…what can be a very, very complex and quite dangerous world.
Why is this important to Americans? According to the Guardian:
[Burnham] plans to approach US president-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with proposals for tight international rules on English language websites, which may include forcing internet service providers, such as BT, Tiscali, Sky and AOL, to provide packages restricting access to websites without an age rating.
And according to Burnham:
The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause. … The more we seek international solutions to this stuff – the UK and the US working together – the more that an international norm will set an industry norm.
Why is this bad for First Amendment supporters?
This is extremely broad language that plays on parental fears and censorious tendencies. As Marjorie Heins writes at the Free Expression Policy Project:
Of course, it’s true that we know pornography “when we see it,” and that most parents don’t want their kids running into it, whether by accident or design. … But sex and violence are so pervasive in art of all kinds, going back at least to the days of ancient Greece, that pointing to a few noncontroversial examples doesn’t go far in defending rating and filtering systems that broadly censor.
Stef Lewandowski has a smart commentary in the Birmingham Post where he describes the impossibility of protecting unmonitored children from “frightening, violent or sexually explicit” content and why the film ratings parallel doesn’t work. He proposes:
Here’s an alternative suggestion. One of Mr Burnham’s predecessors made free museum access for all a reality. So how about something of similar ambition for the web? …How about free WI-FI access in every UK city? Or upgrading our national broadband network to the level that Korea enjoys? …