December 29th, 2008 at 14:32 UTC by Richard Clayton
There’s a short story by (I think) Stephen Leacock, which tells of declining standards. How an undergraduate, newly arrived at university, lived in awe of the sagacity of the professors, of the intelligence of the grad students, and the learning of those about to receive their degrees. By the time he was receiving his first degree, he and his class were merely of average competence. By the time his PhD was awarded there were few of his cohort with any real learning; and standards had slipped so much over time that when they made him a Professor he and his colleagues hardly knew anything at all!
Having now reached the point in my life when I’m older than half the British Cabinet, it’s perhaps no surprise to read that UK cabinet minister Andy Burnham (born when I was in the Lower Sixth), has come up with some ideas about regulating the Internet that I am deeply unimpressed with.
In a Telegraph interview he proposes that ISPs should be forced to provide censored access to the Internet with only child-friendly sites visible; that the industry should have new “take-down” targets for bad material (presumably shorter ones); that it should be easier to sue for defamation online; and that the web should be labelled with age-ratings the way that video games and films are. Of course he realises he can’t do this alone, so he’s going to ask President Obama to help out!
Unfortunately, Mr Burnham doesn’t know anything about the Internet and seems to be arguing by analogy, and with a childlike hope that merely wishing for something will make it come true.
ISPs have tried “child-safe” services in the past — they’ve bombed (heard much of UKOnline’s family oriented products lately?), and even those who still keep their systems working hardly mention them in their adverts any more. I thought that it was no longer a part of modern politics to force an industry to make products that nobody actually wants to buy.
Take-down times are indeed pretty poor, as I keep mentioning, but the fix for this isn’t in the hands of the UK Government.
When the Law Commission looked (twice) at online defamation (and they spent a rather longer time thinking about it than Mr Burnham seems to have done), their main concerns centred around making it harder for ISPs to be sued, and addressing the issues of archives.
Andy Burnham seems to have spent even less time learning about the problems with age-rating the web, because labelling websites just doesn’t work, as I explained at length over a year ago — summarising a history of failure going back more than a decade.
One of the examples from that blog entry was for the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Mr Burnham’s own department — they have labelled their main website with the ICRA scheme. To their credit, they have used more than just a blanket “innocuous” setting, albeit they have clearly overdone it since a description of the minuitiae of the Gambling Act 2005 is still marked up as “gambling”, which may disappoint anyone who was hoping to have a flutter.
Although the DCMS proudly displays the ICRA logo on their front page, they haven’t been bothered to label any of their subsites, such as the Government Art Collection (www.gac.culture.gov.uk), which contains images that some people might consider indecent — such as this full frontal nude of a young boy.
Additionally, this page full of nudes is also unlabelled (the ICRA scheme, by the way, is capable of expressing the cultural aspects of a page, a competent webmaster wouldn’t label these images the same as a Playboy page).
Of course correctly labelling search result pages is rather harder than single images — one of those tedious little details that politicians like to ignore when posturing about how the web should be made “safe”. The DCMS has other types of dynamic page as well: this one is also unlabelled, but contains both the f*** and c*** words (as indeed does the PDF it refers to, but labelling PDFs is way beyond anyone in Whitehall).
So is the DCMS currently making the web safer? Little evidence of that.
Will it be safer in the future, thanks to Andy Burnham? Only if he learns something about the complexity of what he would like to do, and perhaps President Obama, who actually uses the Internet, will be able to help him out?
Even sooner than that, perhaps the coverage of this story, and the comments fed back to him, will help Mr Burnham learn that simplistic sloganising for Telegraph readers just won’t cut it when your lamentable lack of understanding is immediately apparent to anyone who has actually used the Internet in the past decade — and particular so to someone of my advanced years who has long ago seen the flaws, and already seen the failure of the initiatives being proposed!