FOSI logoICRAlogoI blogged the other day about Andy Burnam’s campaign for cinema-style rating of web content.  Burnham is apparently the UK Government’s Culture Secretary, has small children, and does not appear to believe that parental responsibility includes informing children about what they should or should not do.  He has proposed that a system of rating websites analogous to that used for motion pictures  (and we all know how that stops kids from watching DVDs) be used to rate web sites.  The ISPs would then offer the ability to screen out offensive web content.

It’s amusing that this story surfaced shortly after the Internet Watch Foundation’s action against a 1970s LP sleeve thrust the IWF somewhat unwillingly into the media spotlight.  Most internet users were probably unaware that a blacklist of websites was maintained in this way.

The Register has now weighed in with a story – UK.gov to push Obama for tougher rules online – and as so often is the case, reader comments can be quite informative.  I consider myself to be a fairly net-savvy internet user, but I have to confess that I’d not heard of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) before.  The ICRA appear to be a division of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), who’s website gives them an air of being really squeaky clean.  What’s not really clear about the IWF, the ICRA or FOSI is where these organisations originated, nor who fund them – which seems to be to be crucial to understanding their censorship agenda. It does seem that these groups have been active for quite some time behind the scenes.

What amuses me is the section of the FOSI website entitled “ICRA Tools“, which seems to me to pretty much describe Burnham’s Big Idea.  Web content authors add tags to their site so that concerned individuals, organisations, ISPs, governments or even Big Brother can filter out content they don’t want you to see.  But presumably it doesn’t work, or Burnham’s Big Idea would not need to be raised again.

It seems as though official strategy will be to try and curb the internet hydra (as soon as one URL is blocked or filtered, its content will pop up elsewhere on the internet) rather than tracking down the perpetrators of illegal activity or material, or better still take responsibility for your own children and educate them on what they should or shouldn’t do online.  Indeed, Burnham’s interviews with the media do suggest that he’s prety well out of touch with the internet, how it works, and indeed the scale of the thing. 

What’s clear is that 2009 is likely to bring far greater interference in our online activities, in the form of communication monitoring (Wacky Jaqui’s bonkers Interception Modernisation Programme), Burnham’s Big Idea, the vile Phorm system being introduced by BT in the shape of BT Webwise (and against which our Government is offering no protection whatsoever)

Some quotations:

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.” 

I realise Burnham isn’t talking political censorship here, but beware of function creep.  If we empower governments to censor our information streams for some content, what’s to stop future governments from widening their censorship criteria?

Postscript:  Burnham has proposed his big idea several times over the last few months – this bit about the internet being moved under governmental control is also not new.  The Register reported on this previously – “UK.gov says: Regulate the internet“.  AsThe Register put it:

According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be “over-burdensome”. We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: “bonkers”. We asked again last week.