Andy Burnham and the decline of standards

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 (, 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!

11 thoughts on “Andy Burnham and the decline of standards

  1. Following the Hon. Mr Burnham’s media shenanigans, I’ve been doing my usual reductio ad absurdum reasoning – and the conclusion I’ve reached is that, the pretty-much-impossibility of Internet-based automatic age controls notwithstanding, I can’t even prove the fact that I’m an adult to the computer sat right here on my lap, never mind some service out on the net.

    Therefore, even in a hypothetical world where Internet-based transitive trust between systems can be made to work, the only way in which children can be “protected” from “nasty things” on the net, is if it is made illegal to sell them computers or other Internet-connectable devices.

    I’m thinking of writing more on this subject, but “you heard it here, first” :-).

  2. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Burnham might have been talking to Mr. Conroy in Australia who is proposing a subtly different Internet filter but one that is ultimately flawed in the same way.

    If they have not talked but somehow arrived at the same idea independently, what is it that is making them decide that now is the right time to filter/categorise the Internet ? Are we likely to see ministers from other countries proposing similar ideas ?

  3. Well said, Richard – and Merry Christmas, BTW.

    What on earth is he thinking of with “that it should be easier to sue for defamation online”? I know first hand of one large, US based, online media operation that abandoned plans to relocate to the UK because of our already bloody stupid libel laws.

  4. Why pick on the Internet? Who wouldn’t love to wander around Tesco, issuing takedown notices willy nilly? The breakfast food aisle will be almost empty, once we get rid of all the high calorie, child-unfriendly junk.

  5. When is a “for the children” tag line going to age as a knee jerk sound bite.

    I’m not sure if The Right Hon Burnham is an imbacile (see original definition of reaching twice for a heated coin) a nave or has no respect for those that provide his living.

    I’m also now of an age where politicians look increasingly like children both physically and in the things they say.

    Which is maybe why I try to think of ways to replace the “Monkey in a suit” (representational) democracy with something closer to true demcocracy (ie vote on issues not for personalities to decide for you over whom you have no control).

    And like

    @ Dave Walker

    I hit the same problem,

    “I can’t even prove the fact that I’m an adult to the computer sat right here on my lap, never mind some service out on the net.”

    The simple fact is that you cannot prove who you are in a reliable way to another person who is unknown to you which is why NatID cards are doomed and ID theft will always happen.

    The only way we have currently of IDing ourselves scientificaly is via analysis of our DNA and it’s acossiated parts.

    And DNA testing is so fraught with issues that it is unlikley to be a reliable method of establishing age or ID in a time period suitable for use in an online world.

    Which leaves us with an “elephant in the room” of such monumental proportions that politicians can only talk by waving their arms and blurbing out sound bites that have aged more than they have.

  6. It’s very useful that people like Mr Burnham exist. Last year he was trumpeting the benefits of the Government ID Card scheme (which we all know will be hugely intrusive and incredibly expensive, but ultimately no good at all). More recently he’s been proposing the extension of copyright on musical recordings from 50 to 70 years: practically none of the benefits will get to musicians, practically all to record companies. Now he’s in favour of censoring the internet.

    Now, if some topic comes up in the political sphere about which I still haven’t made up my mind, all I have to do is find out what Andy Burnham thinks, and be quite certain that the exact opposite is the right answer. That’s a real time-saver.

  7. With respect, Richard, you may be giving Burnham too much credit for being a simpleton.

    Instead he may well be fully aware that his proposals are likely to fail. The important thing is he: (1) justifies his existence by suggesting change; (2) appeals to ignorant parents who want to shift responsibility for parenting to others (a little unfair, but still); and (3) when his proposals fail he can blame ISPs and civil liberties campaigners.

  8. The phrase “Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted” springs to mind here. Governments across the world were quick to commercialise the Internet without thinking of the downsides of what could be published and cross jurisdiction issues. It is my understanding that Chinese filtering is bypassed by the English language. Any attempt to filter or “snoop” on content of data transmitted will only cause “netizens” to encrypt data even more. People sending emails of a personal nature may be frightened to do so, due to added paranoia that some bureaucrat somewhere may be reading what is sent. A normal (spoken) conversation between two people conveying a degree of intimacy wouldn’t be bound by these restrictions, even though telephone calls can be intercepted or monitored, it raises the question of who and what should be monitored and how, but unfortunately politicos do not have the answers. As I’ve said elsewhere on the boards, Children should be supervised on the Internet, or, as I’ve suggested on other website message boards, it should go back in control of those who it was originally designed for, namely academics. However, I read in the Manchester Evening News that children of school age are actively fidning more ways of looking at things they shouldn’t, which is probably why Mr Burnham came up with this idea.

  9. @ John,

    “However, I read in the Manchester Evening News that children of school age are actively fidning more ways of looking at things they shouldn’t,”

    Curiosity is in the nature of learning so no surprise there, and to be honest in most cases as a parent it does not overly concern me (though some aspects do).

    Unfortunatly curiosity goes hand in hand with another issue that does concern me greatly, which is that young people have poor perception of risk and future harm.

    Whilst risk perception for most humans is short term (a year at the most for 99%), future harm is just starting to be considerd by a small fraction of the population.

    Be it at the personal level by Identity Theft or at the organisational level by Electronic Discovery.

    However very few people take this logicaly forward and consider that social sites in their various forms will come back to haunt them at a later stage in their life.

    Not just on a personal level where perhaps an adolescent antic recorded on a social site might adversly effects a persons employability.

    It is entirly possible that we will have a new form of McCarthyism, Inquisition or witch trials spring up where just having had contact with certain individuals or entities will be sufficient to compleaty ruin a persons life.

    Therefor perhaps with regards the Internet the “academics” who “it should go back in control” with, are not the technologists for “who it was originally designed for,” but historians.

  10. @ Clive

    I was curious back in the days when we has BBC’s at school, but there was an IBM terminal connected to the town hall (that’s what we were told!) and I always wondered what it was there for, indeed the one question I would’ve liked answered is why was it in a room of 30 or so unruly kids, who could have accessed it? Granted our knowledge of real world computing was rather limited, but as you say, curiosity kept us going. I never found out why it was there and to the best of my knowledge no one actually touched it. So much for curiosity! I also agree with what you say about risk perception and although children are repeatedly told not to give out phone numbers or addresses, it still goes on. As I type the young girl reported missing in the media has now turned up in France, having given details to a 49 year old man. This is worrying, as most text based web/chat sites have to be taken at face value.

    Herbert X Smith
    99 Bogland Gardens
    AK47 9ZZ

    The above “address” is fictional, but if it is all that people have to go on – should they lean to it being truthful (which it isn’t) or not?

    As for your comment about McCarthyism, I’m afraid that’s already here; news sites such as the BBC frequently carry content about people having false allegations or rumours, lies and innuendo having a severely detrimental effect on their lives, the problem being that people readily believe these falsehoods, one of these being a fairly well known news item of six children being killed in Stornoway in 1968, used when GMT is discussed. This did not happen, it was discussed on Radio 2 earlier this month; even MP’s have used it in the House of Commons. With something like that, how can situations be resolved?

    One last point, what is currently available in “new media”, may not be available in 30 years time….

  11. What happened to parents watching their kids?

    Instead of restricting everything on the ‘net to the lowest common denominator, how about kicking parents and holding them (at least) partially accountable for when something happens (such as in the case of the 15 year old)?

    Parents should be made to be more accountable, so that they are more inclined to monitor their kids activities. I’m sure they wouldn’t let them walk into an adult shop unattended, so why do they let them surf the ‘net that way?

    I wish we could return the internet as it was in the mid to late 90s before Joe Public got their hands on it.

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