In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the government’s Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has said that Internet sites could be given cinema-style age ratings as part of a crackdown on offensive and harmful online activity to be launched in the New Year.
Apparently, Mr Burnham 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 internet-service providers (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, Mr Burnham replies: “Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.”
His plans to rein in the internet, and censor some websites, are likely to trigger a major row with online advocates who ferociously guard the freedom of the world wide web.
Damn right it’ll trigger a row. It seems as if Mr Burnham hasn’t really thought this through; he uses a lot of very vague and generalised words and phrases – almost as if he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. And, as a trans woman, I have major, major concerns about any threat of online censorship, wherever it originates.
First, the technical stuff. It’s not that hard to follow: the Internet is not the World Wide Web. They are not synonymous. From Wikipedia, “the World Wide Web (commonly shortened to the Web) is a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet”. A gross oversimplification is to consider the Web as the train and the Internet the railway system. And as someone who has worked in IT support for several years, I’m also familiar with the idea that networks will generally do their best to allow data to move from point A to point B; that’s their function. To continue the train analogy, a problem at Crewe station won’t necessarily stop your train from London reaching its destination in Manchester – although you may find yourself getting there by a somewhat roundabout route.
And as for this:
However, Mr 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.
Is he really that ignorant about the origins of the Internet? It began in the Cold War days of the 1960s as an R&D project between the military, scientific academia and the government to investigate how data, documents and information could be exchanged electronically.
Ultimately, from a technical standpoint, I don’t see how censorship will work, whoever’s imposing it – government, ISP or even the individual end-user – because the Internet ‘sees’ censorship as damage and routes around it. That’s the whole point of networks, it’s what they’re supposed to do. The Golden Shield Project – the so-called Great Firewall of China – exemplifies this principle quite well; it’s proving to be less successful and more porous than planned, for exactly this reason.
So, for starters, I’d like to know how he thinks his proposal is going to be practically enforced, or policed.
Second, and for me, the real issue: content censorship. Mr Burnham uses phrases like “standards of decency” and “accessing appropriate stuff”, but he doesn’t seem to define them in any meaningful way. What, exactly, is “unacceptable” material – who defines it? Me? You? Our ISPs? Or the government? No, don’t tell me, let me guess.
Given the systemic oppression, marginalisation and transphobia that trans people are routinely subjected to, on and offline, I find this quote distinctly worrying:
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; 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.
Genital reaffirmation surgery has been referred to more than once as mutilation of a healthy body. So should the website of my surgeon be censored, for facilitating “harm to other people”?
For me, one of the key elements of my ‘support network’ through my transition has been the Web. It’s enabled me to find crucial information on the medical condition of gender dysphoria as well as the legal and social aspects of transitioning; I’ve bought meds online and, as I’ve begun to come to terms with the politics of being a trans woman, it’s been an invaluable source of reference, of ideas, of documentation – and an organisational tool without equal. Trans people, by virtue of our fewness in number, are often about as geographically distant as it’s possible to be, but the Web eliminates that distance at the proverbial click of a mouse and makes education, socialising and friendships possible.
Then there are the activist aspects. The recent protests at the RSM and the Stonewall awards wouldn’t have happened without the Web, it really is as simple as that.
Communication: that’s what the Web is about. The exchange of ideas and information, nothing more, nothing less.
And if Mr Burnham thinks he can deny me such a key part of my life through censorship, then he has, as the saying goes, another think coming.
Anyway, I’ve been wondering, more out of idle curiosity than any burning desire to censor myself, what age category BoP would fall under – if it had to be categorised at all. According to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), there are the following classification categories:
- Uc/U – ‘Universal’: should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over, set within a positive moral framework and should offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror.
- PG – ‘Parental Guidance’: general viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children. Unaccompanied children of any age may watch. A ‘PG’ film should not disturb a child aged around eight or older.
- 12A/12 – Suitable for 12 years and over. No-one younger than 12 may see a ’12A’ film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. No-one younger than 12 may rent or buy a ’12’ rated video or DVD. Responsibility for allowing under-12s to view lies with the accompanying or supervising adult.
- 15 – Suitable only for 15 years and over; no-one younger than 15 may see a ’15’ film in a cinema. No-one younger than 15 may rent or buy a ’15’ rated video or DVD.
- 18 Suitable only for adults. No-one younger than 18 may see an ’18’ film in a cinema. No-one younger than 18 may rent or buy an ’18’ rated video.
- R18 – To be shown only in specially licensed cinemas, or supplied only in licensed sex shops, and to adults of not less than 18 years. The ‘R18’ category is a special and legally restricted classification primarily for explicit works of consenting sex between adults.
Which all seems relatively simple at first sight. However, not only are the categories are based on age, but also a moral code which appears to derive from existing legislation (Licensing Act, Video Recordings Act, etc), none of which seems particularly relevant to the content of this site.
Although, interestingly, there’s also an unofficial ‘E’ category which appears on video packaging and indicates that “the distributor believes the work to be exempt from classification. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984, a video is an exempted work if is designed to inform, educate or instruct; is concerned with sport, religion or music; or is a video game.”
So there you go, Mr Burnham: I hereby declare BoP to be exempt from your ludicrous and not even half-baked proposal. Now, please, run along and pick on somebody your own size. Kthxbai.