British Culture Minister Mulls Hollywood-Style Ratings For Web Sites

December 30, 2008 0

London— Blighty’s culture secretary, Andy Burnham, seeks to impose an Internet rating system on English-language Web sites that mirrors movie-like ratings, and said that he would negotiate with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s administration team on drafting international standards for contents against indecency, violence, libel and copyright theft on the websites in a bid to better police the Internet and protect children from harmful and offensive material, Britain’s minister for culture has said.

If Britain’s culture minister has his way, the U.K. government could soon impose tough restrictions on websites — a rating system akin to the movie industry in the coming year.

In an interview last week with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham said that the government was planning to negotiate with the administration of President-elect Barack Obama to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

Burnham described the Internet as “quite a dangerous place” and wants Internet-service providers to offer parents “child-safe” Web services.

“The more we strive for an international solutions to this stuff — the UK and the U.S. working together — the more that an international norm will set an industry norm,” the newspaper quoted the Culture Secretary as saying in an interview.

Giving websites film-style ratings would be one possibility. “This is an area that is really now coming into full focus,” Burnham told the paper.

“There is content that should just not be accessible to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical,” 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. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

Burnham also seeks new industry-wide “take down times" — deadlines such sites as YouTube or Facebook have to remove content after being alerted it is considered harmful. The British government is also considering changing libel laws to give people access to low-cost legal help if they are defamed online.

While Burnham’s proposals could add up to censorship in the eyes of some free-speech advocates on the World Wide Web, he nonetheless plans to encourage Internet service providers to find ways to offer “child-safe” Web services.

Internet service providers could also be forced to offer services where the only sites accessible are those deemed suitable for children; the paper quoted him as saying.

However, such a rating system is being considered to cause offense to free speech. Burnham says a Web site rating system would simply protect children from objectionable online content. But experts say such a rating system may be ineffective.

“If you look back at the people who created the Internet, they talked very deliberately about creating a space that governments could not reach. I think we have to revisit that stuff seriously now. It is true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is also an emerging issue,” Burnham told the Telegraph.

He said some content should not be available to be viewed.

“The change of administration (in the U.S.) is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause,” Burnham told the Daily Telegraph on Saturday.

The important goal is to deliver a safer environment for children online, possibly through the introduction of a film-style rating system for websites, administered by Internet service providers.

“I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,” Burnham said. “More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site what standards it is operating to? What are the protections that are in place?”

He said the freedoms hitherto enjoyed on the Internet may have to be constrained.

Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy at Jupitermedia, wonders exactly what a cinema-like rating system would accomplish.

“It is not like kids will go to a Web site to look at the age rating to see if it is appropriate for them, and browse on out of there when they discover it is not suitable for minors,” Gartenberg said.

According to him, the concept of an Internet rating system takes us back to the same basic discussion about video games and other media kids consume. “If parents are actively monitoring what sites their kids are going to, they will have better control over these things,” he said. “If parents are not keenly keeping a check on the sites their kids visits, then putting these things into play really would not make much of a difference one way or another.”

While a cinema-like rating system is not the only option, Burnham is pushing for clearer standards online. A father of three young children, Burnham is worried about children. Leaving them for two hours completely unregulated on the Internet is not acceptable, he said, and there need to be stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around what he describes as a potentially “dangerous world.”

Still, Burnham contemplates at the changing administration in the United States as a prime opportunity to push his Internet-regulation agenda through on an international scale. Even though he admits some may look at his notions as heavy-handed, he said new standards are “utterly critical.”