Saturday, 27 December 2008

Burnham talks internet regulation

The Telegraph has an interesting interview with Culture Secretary Andy Burnham today in which he raises the thorny issue of internet regulation. In summary, he wants to work with the Obama administration in the US to draw up standards for English-language websites and compel ISPs to provide child-safe services. His plans may possibly include cinema-style site certification.

Being a social libertarian and someone who works with legal adult content, my initial instinct was to oppose these plans outright, but on reflection I think they deserve consideration.

First-off, it should be stressed that nothing may come of this. It's clearly on the government's radar, but at some distance. I can't imagine that trying to reach a consensus with the Obama administration is going to be easy, not least because they will have bigger fish to fry for some time yet, but also because Obama favours self-regulation of the internet and clearly he wouldn't want to alienate a sphere that was instrumental in his election, especially when he'll need to leverage the net for his re-election campaign.

However, this doesn't preclude the British government from taking unilateral action. I think that their greatest chance of success would be in creating a framework for child-safe internet services. I'm actually quite supportive of the idea of a walled-garden internet that kids can freely roam in and I believe it would be commercially viable for ISPs to offer such a service. It also makes more sense than trying to regulate content across all sites because the majority of content is created, published and hosted outside the UK, so such regulation would be ineffectual.

I think it would have to be based on a certification system, where sites carrying a certificate would make the child-safe feed. Of course, this does raise the question of who would decide which sites receive a certificate and who would police the system, but it's not an insurmountable task. However, I strongly believe it needs to be a voluntary, opt-in system, i.e. users should have to choose to opt-in to the walled garden, not opt-out of it. The net as it is should remain the default position.

It's encouraging that Burnham isn't talking about the Australian and Chinese approach of mass internet censorship. While he does say that certain content shouldn't be allowed on the internet full-stop (presumably, material like the 'extreme pornography' the possession of which was recently banned) I think there is a pragmatic awareness that adults should be allowed to make their own choices about what they view. I'm all for giving people information to help them make those choices and if a system of classification were introduced that would require me to carry an '18' certificate on some of my sites then I wouldn't have a problem with that, provided it was solely for informing visitors and not the basis of a censorship system.

1 comment:

Dan Brusca said...

There's an good opinion piece on this by John Ozimek over at The Register.