Can Internet content rating work?

The UK’s Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, has said he wants to introduce some form of content rating system on the Internet – and that he will negotiate with the US to draw up plans which cover English-language websites. Can it work?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that he’s able to persuade his American counterparts to play ball (which is quite an assumption to start off with). He says he wants to protect internauts from “unacceptable” content such as video clips of beheadings; I’m also assuming that he wouldn’t go to all this trouble only to leave internet pornography un-regulated, so presumably that will be included in the plans too. The obvious issue this raises is that predominantly visual content is not language-specific. To be blunt – if someone’s going online to look at boobies, it’s not going to make a material difference whether they are English boobies, Ugandan boobies or Galapagos boobies.

[Oh, all right, then… in the spirit of it: you can follow any of those links without running the risk of seeing a bare mammary, I promise]

Another problem is that Mr Burnham’s language does not make any distinction between web sites and web content. Enforcing content rating for websites is going to be hard enough; enforcing it at a sensibly granular level is very likely to be impractical – as the recent row over Wikipedia’s 1976 “Scorpions” album cover amply illustrates.

But the fatal problem is perhaps this one: Mr Burnham is unsurprisingly keen to portray his proposals as “controlled consumption” rather than “censored publication”. But of course, if that control over consumption is to be seen as anything other than censorship it has to be discretionary (for instance, the ability of a parent to decide what their children may or may not see).

So, what would the enforcement of such a law entail, in practical terms? Well, ignoring any technical niceties for the time being, it suggests that the law enforcement authorities could get a clear enough view of what’s happening inside your household to prove to a court that one of the following offences had been committed:

1 – someone under-age had accessed ‘unacceptable’ content despite the parental controls applied by the diligent householder;

2 – the householder had negiligently or willingly left the controls on a setting which failed to prevent the viewing of ‘unacceptable’ content.

I applaud Mr Burnham’s concern for the cultural well-being of the country, but I think he has yet to show that that level of law enforcement access would be any less damaging than the content he wishes to block.