Internet sites could be given cinema-style age ratings as part of a Government crackdown on freedom online to be launched in the New Year, the Culture Secretary says.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that
new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.
The Cabinet minister describes the internet
as quite a dangerous place and says he wants ISPs to offer parents child-safe web services.
Giving film-style ratings to individual websites is one of the options being considered, he confirms. When asked directly whether age
ratings could be introduced, Burnham replies: Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.
ISPs, such as BT, Tiscali, AOL or Sky could also be forced to offer internet services where the only
websites accessible are those deemed suitable for children.
Burnham said: 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.
There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely
categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; [...BUT...] 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 reveals that he is currently considering a range of new safeguards. Initially, as with copyright violations, these could be policed by internet providers. However, new laws may be threatened if the initial
approach is not successful: I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online. 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 points to the success of the 9pm television watershed at protecting children. The minister also backs a new age classification system on video games to stop children buying certain products.
Burnham also wants new industry-wide take down
times. This means that if websites such as YouTube or Facebook are alerted to offensive or harmful content they will have to remove it within a specified time once it is brought to their attention.
He also says that the Government is
considering changing libel laws to give people access to cheap low-cost legal recourse if they are defamed online. The legal proposals are being drawn up by the Ministry of Justice.
Burnham admits that his plans may be interpreted by some as heavy-handed
...BUT... says the new standards drive is utterly crucial . Mr Burnham also believes that the inauguration of Barack Obama, the President-Elect, presents an opportunity to implement the major changes necessary for the web: 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.
Proposals by UK Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, to introduce cinema-style ratings for websites across the globe might benefit from a little more fact-finding and a little less rhetoric. On the other hand, the danger of open-minded research, is that it
might just expose New Labour waffle to the harsh realities of how things actually work.
One problem that will not go away this year is how to deal with the growing problem of protecting children from dangerous material on the internet. The hint by culture secretary Andy Burnham that unsuitable websites might be given cinema-style ratings
has been welcomed by some parents but was dismissed by bloggers. There is a serious problem: the ease with which youngsters can access pornography by clicking a button saying they are over 18 with no means of cross-checking. The problem didn't exist when
many politicians were young and this may explain their keenness to apply yesterday's solutions. The prospect of people sticking PG or 18 certificates on the zillions of images and articles that whizz through the internet every hour is like building
sandcastles to keep the tide out.
Communications Minister Lord Carter was expected to publish interim findings on the UK's digital economy on 24 January.
But a spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the report would now appear before the end of the
The Digital Britain report examines a range of issues affecting internet users such as security and and safety and promoting content standards. The report is also expected to examine illegal file-sharing of movies, music and TV
and appraise ways of tackling it.
The full report and action plan will be unveiled in late spring 2009.
Parents should take greater responsibility for what their children get up to on the internet, according to Jeremy Olivier, Ofcom's Head of Convergent Media.
He was speaking at Taming the Wild Web? , a keynote forum hosted in Whitehall by
Westminster eForums, and bringing together the great and the good from the internet world to discuss issues such as how online content can be regulated, whether all illegal activities should be regulated equally, and who should act as regulator.
The majority of panellists, with some notable exceptions, appeared to be in broad agreement. Hard-hitting laws to clamp down on the internet would be a mistake or as as Alun Michael, MP put it, quoting from Gibbon:
Laws rarely prevent what they forbid. Too tight a framework for internet regulation would most likely have unintended consequences and inflict irreparable harm on what would otherwise be a key growth industry throughout the next few decades.
The day's main dissent came from Derek Wyatt, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Communications. He followed a short history of internet development with the contention that international regulation was coming: that there was
growing government appetite for a body that would carry out this task, and that the best model for such regulation was our very own Ofcom.
His roadmap to a cleaner, safer internet world included a Communications Act in 2011, giving Ofcom a lead
role in UK regulation; a creation of a world charter, to be presented by the UK to the G8 (or possibly G20) in the same year; and a gradual winning of hearts and minds - state by state, issue by issue - over the ensuing decade.
While such a big government
approach was not in tune with the majority of contributions, Alun Michael did warn that if the industry failed to show willing in the matter of (self-)regulation, they should be wary of a Dangerous Computers Act being imposed on them.
Culture secretary Andy Burnham has confirmed he will create a co-regulatory body, led and funded by the industry, to take on responsibility for regulating programme content on video-on-demand services. Under the new rules, all UK providers of
VOD services will need to notify the co-regulator that they are providing a service, Burnham's department for culture, media and sport said.
Burnham's announcement signals the UK government's acceptance of most of the provisions in the
European Commission's new Audiovisual Media Services directive (AVMS), drafted in 2007 to replace its 20-year-old Television Without Frontiers rules. AVMS, which is being implemented by EU member states, makes the first regulatory distinction between
linear and on-demand media, which was designated to get only light-touch regulation.
Burnham's implementation through co-regulation will throw the spotlight on the existing Association for Television On Demand (ATVOD), which has operated
since 2003 to self-regulate the sector.
Burnham said: Video-on-demand services only come within the scope of the AVMS directive if they are mass media services whose principal purpose is to provide TV programmes to the public on demand.
But technology is changing rapidly and the interpretation already appears out-dated. Not only is YouTube already available on TV sets through Apple TV, Nintendo Wii etc, and not only do services like Joost absolutely want to provide TV shows
on-demand… most web-based VOD services ultimately also want carriage to the TV, too. In appealing to those such services, BBC's Project Canvas, for example, is aiming to make internet VOD mass media , just as Burnham defined.
Months after announcing his intention to work with the Obama administration to develop new restrictions on unacceptable material online, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham is still waiting for anyone in Washington to listen to him.
At the end
of December, Burnham took to the airwaves and newspaper pages to decry content that should just not be available to be viewed . He also suggested international cooperation to create a system of cinema-style age ratings for English language
But yesterday in response to a question from the Liberal Democrats, Burnham's junior minister Barbara Follett conceded that four months into the new US administration, no progress had been made on the plans. Officials in London were
still waiting for someone interested to be appointed across the Atlantic, she explained.
I remain keen to discuss an international approach to areas of public concern about certain internet content and look forward to engaging with the
appropriate member of the US Administration once the relevant appointment has been made, Follett said.
Health minister Ben Bradshaw has been appointed as the new culture secretary, replacing Andy Burnham, in a move that comes at a crucial time for the media industry as the government weighs up crucial decisions about the final Digital Britain report.
Bradshaw, a former BBC journalist and the MP for Exeter, is to take over as secretary for culture, media and sport. Burnham is heading the other way, to become health secretary.
The culture department faces some crucial decision over the next
few weeks, with the Digital Report set to be published on 16 June.
Lets hope that Burnham's departures means an end to his madcap idea to classify the internet.
Meanwhile the government censor, Jack Straw stays as Minister of Injustice and
Jacqui Smith's replacement Home Secretary has been named as Trade Unionist and party leadership contender, Alan Johnson.
On Monday he should announce a review of the government's ID cards policy, an increasingly unpopular measure which is going to cost
the taxpayer a minimum of £4.5bn and probably cause every adult in the country irritation and substantial expense, and yet will produce none of the significant gains in security the government has claimed for the scheme.
Stepping back from
ID cards will check the advances the opposition have made in this area, as well as signal a change of tone in Labour thinking; moving away from New Labour's emphasis on increasing the authority of the state, against the power and self determination of