Andy Burnham, UK's Culture, Media and Sports Secretary, is backing plans to introduce Cinema-like ratings for websites, amongst a number of things which has attracted a number of comments (and even prompted Mike Butcher from Techcrunch UK to "steal" the culture Secretary's Twitter account.
Trying to rate/control websites is not only technically challenging but also potentially very costly and counter productive and we've shortlisted five reasons why such ratings will fail, ultimately.
(1) How will it be done?
By all means, there are three approaches to the regulation of the internet on behalf of our future generations. Either let site owners have their way and decide which content is deemed suitable, or get a few tens of thousands of civil servants to surf the net and tag/monitor it or finally get volunteers à la Wikipedia, to bring the equivalent of a "neighbourhood watch" online. One issue is that there are so much content to filter that it would be near impossible to control, let alone eradicate, unsuitable content. Youtube alone has more than 1.2 billion minutes of video uploaded by its users.
(2) Culture is Fragmented, not uniform
Culture, in any countries, is not uniform or dogmatic. What is acceptable in one country might not be so in another, even if they speak the same language. Burnham mentioned that he wanted to protect children from "seeking out footage of a beheading on the internet". Showing partially naked bodies or having two men kissing tenderly on screen might be generally acceptable in UK but would still cause many to cringe especially amongst some communities/age groups. Likewise, a video that offends one person may not necessarily cause grievance to another one
(3) What about the freedom of speech?
To quote a sensible comment on the issue, "The law should not restrict adults' rights of free and unfettered speech. In other words any policy, rule, regulation or legislation should not impose unconstitutional burden on adults for the best interest of children. So, this is the only other reasonable, acceptable compromise". It is very likely that any overarching plans to filter, monitor the net will get rejected because it doesn't comply with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which clealy stipulates "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
(4) Parents are expected to participate in the scheme
Parents are one of the pillars of the new proposed schemes and one obvious problem is that not many parents unfortunately care enough for their children to accompany them while they surf the internet and help them understands the perils and danger of this brave new world. Also, children and teenagers are particularly attuned to new technologies and it is very likely that they, not their parents, will find their ways through the meanders of the net.
(5) Technologically impossible to achieve
Will the government try to force Google, Youtube and other service providers to monitor their content and flag illicit or suspicious files? Many governments have tried it already (including China and Iran) but without great success. Even the great Firewall of China is full of loopholes and just like combating piracy, this game of cat-and-mouse will prove to be a tedious and useless. Just an example, one can use translating services like Google's language translator to access websites in foreign languages (which would not carry any ban). Similarly, it is likely that any targeted ban, like in the case of the very controversial Cover album of German Rock band, the Scorpions, will end up with thousands of websites copying and distributing the content ad infinitum.
Could this parental control system actually form part of a grander plan to implement a Great Firewall of Britain (or at least a Echelon-for-the-web system) coupled with an anti piracy system. If implemented, it would be yet another step to the "big-brother-tisation" of the internet and all means of communications; scary stuff indeed. You can read more about Mike Butcher's attempt to steal the Twitter account of Andy Burnham here.