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Monday, December 29, 2008

Policing the internet

Having been away from the internet for a few days I have not had a chance to comment on the latest public relations initiative from Culture Minister, Andy Burnham to censor the internet. My first reaction was that he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. It is a view that is reflected by quite a few commentators including Quarsan on the Blairwatch site.

Many of us have concerns at the influence that the internet can have on children but we understand that the best way to deal with this issue is proper supervision at the point of use. Mr. Burnham on the other hand wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services. It is not clear how he is going to enforce this other than some vague notion that the new President of the United States will join him in this crusade.

One of the options is to give film-style ratings to individual websites. 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.

Quarsan however has a better idea of the size of the task and the problems facing the Culture Secretary:

The sheer idiocy of this is remarkable.

1. The numbers involved. According to the
Netcraft Server Survey, in December 2008, there were around 186,727,854 websites. So, the proposed scheme would have to classify 187 million websites. But it gets worse; in December 2008 an extra 1.56 million sites were created. Just to tread water 1,560,000 sites would have to be classified in December alone.

Lets say it takes an hour to look at a site, classify it and do the paperwork. In a working month of 160 hours, this would take 9,750 people to classify December's sites alone. Lets say the cost of employing them was 20,000 a year. The annual salary bill of the raters alone would be 195,000,000. Then you have the support staff, the HR etc. Then the buildings etc.

It is a ludicrous idea. It's a very, very expensive idea.

2. What are the standards? Take Channel 4's website. Some of it is very child-friendly, some more adult orientated. There are many more sites like this, so you are going to have to apply standards, not to websites, but individual web pages. This means that the sums above increase by a factor of thousands.

3. Who decides the standards? How are they going to be applied? What about an appeal process?

4. The internation nature of the internet. How are you going to enforce classification in China? Russia? Anywhere?

The Guardian Technology blog points to a further obstacle to Mr. Burnham's ambitions:

you'll have trouble persuading Barack Obama that he needs to focus on that when the economy is collapsing around him, and as for Britain's libel laws - if there's one thing Britain doesn't need, it's to make it easier for people to run off to courts. On the internet, Mr Burnham, good information tends to drive out bad. Information drives out misinformation. Time instead for people to remember that childhood rhyme about sticks and stones, I think.

All in all this idea has all the hallmarks of being badly thought out and misconceived. Full marks to Mr. Burnham for his ambition but nothing at all for practicality and deliverability.
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