U.K. ‘Culture Minister’ Calls for Web ‘Decency’ Ratings in U.S.

Published February 1, 2009

A cabinet secretary in Great Britain has called for a movie-style ratings system to establish “standards of decency” on the Internet—and promises to lobby President Barack Obama to convince the United States to join the effort.

Andy Burnham, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, told the London Telegraph late last year the English-speaking world—which currently dominates the Web—needs to join together to protect the public from “dangerous” destinations on the Internet.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed,” Burnham said. “That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it. 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.”

Questioning Enforcement

Tech experts quickly derided the idea.

“He’s kidding, right?” asked Don Reisinger, a tech expert who blogs at the influential CNET news site. “How can anyone expect a ‘cinema-style’ ratings system to work in an environment where individuality and ‘user-owned’ content are coveted above all else?

“And what about the whole enforcement of such an idea?” Reisinger asked. “Should we hire pimple-faced teenagers to check IDs before your 13-year-old decides to surf to HowardStern.com like they do at movie theaters?

“It’s not that I’m against keeping kids away from questionable content,” Reisinger said. “I simply don’t know how a ratings system could do any good.”

Free Speech Concerns

Mike Masnick, founder of Techdirt, a blog focusing on technology news, warned against empowering governments to monitor Web content.

“That’s just what the world needs: more government censorship determining what is and what is not ‘appropriate’ online,” Masnick said.

“This is the typical mistake made by politicians who think the Internet is a content platform and not a communications platform,” Masnick said. “If [Burnham is] going to censor the Internet for such content, will he also make it illegal to say bad things over the phone?”

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.