Monday, December 29, 2008

Burn, Hollywood, Burnham!

It is come to this. Here is our Secretary of State for Culture:
The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, says in an interview today that the government is considering the need for "child safe" websites – registered with cinema-style age warnings – to curb access to offensive or damaging online material.

He plans to approach US president-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration with proposals for tight international rules on English language websites, which may include forcing internet service providers, such as BT, Tiscali, Sky and AOL, to ­provide packages restricting access to websites without an age rating.
Oh shitty fuck. I thought it was bad enough when a colleague of mine mentioned that Burnham wanted to make YouTube put warnings next to everything it carried that included rude words. But no, it's worse. This is dire in so many ways; for a start, this is our Secretary of Culture yelling for censorship. Not the Home Secretary, or the Minister for Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice, or the Lord Chamberlain.

Shouldn't he be the voice for culture in the Cabinet, like the Chancellor is for finance, or the secretary of defence is for the military? The Home Office will always demand more surveillance and more control, but shouldn't the Department of Culture demand culture?

Further, there's the crappy idea of special "packages" of the Internet with bits missing. There is a clear reason why this is crappy: if it is so desirable, why isn't anyone selling it? Isn't there a gap in the market? Of course, one of the problems is that it would be expensive - who will go through all the websites censoring them? But then, they say you can't buck the market, and if you can't do that to build a national fibre network or keep Amersham's DNA sequencer business in the UK, you can't do that for censorship.

It's also crappy because it does nothing about peer-to-peer networks, instant messaging, VoIP, USENET, e-mail (remember that?), but it's worse than that - it's based on a set of fundamentally stupid and discriminatory assumptions.

First of all, there's the idea that sin can leap out and grab you, to quote Holden Caulfield. Paedophiles can make vapours rise up from the keyboard. But secondly, there's the idea that this only applies to some very specific and rather puny kinds of sin. There is surely plenty of stuff in an average edition of several national newspapers that, if we looked at it clearly, we would all agree is highly unsuitable for children; and it has little or nothing to do with the usual tropes of rude words and naked flesh.

Third, there's a weird discrimination of means. Not only is a punch in the mouth worse on this scale of values (violence!) than the delivery of a 1,000 pound bomb (this is called "action"), pretty much anything is OK if it is delivered in print or in the theatre. Nobody seems to want to censor the printing press or reintroduce theatrical censorship. The explanation is in part that the National Theatre's seating capacity is less than the peak daily traffic of this weblog and heavily London-focused. But that's not enough.

If the buggers are reading books, this is in a sense enough - they look more middle-class, dammit, and who cares about the content. And if you've got them into a theatre for something of their choice, it's unlikely they are the ones you're worrying about.

But I am even more furious about the reference to the "English-language Internet". For a start, this betrays deep ignorance. There is no such thing; the Internet has no notion of English language, and it's damn right. It's because of this that it can work in every language. And Burnham seems to think he owns the English language, that he can impose his will on anyone who chooses to write in it. What if an Indian does so, on a website hosted in Holland, operated by a Chinese company? Who is this Burnham?

It's worse than that, though; he is trying to push his quack nonsense on the Americans, which means he doesn't think he can get it through Parliament and he also doesn't think he can get it through the European Parliament, so he wants a nice little unpublished understanding with the Americans that the prime minister can sign and instantly ratify under the prerogative power, and then place in the Commons library, or perhaps not. Rather like the whole wealth of other understandings that have to do with electronic surveillance of one form or another.

The good news, however, is that his proposals might contravene the US constitution (we can't expect too much from our own). If they can have secret transatlantic understandings, then I intend to have one of my own.

Meanwhile, Brazil's top five cities get fibre to the home.


Anonymous said...

But it is just the thin edge of the wedge is it not? I can imagine when they will say that Aljazerra is unsuitable for anyone of any age and try to block that.

Fellow Traveller said...

You've hit on the correct underlying fear behind this censorship move - it has to do with class and the traditional English terror of the rampaging mob. We've just seen video of Greek youths tearing up the streets and throwing them at coppers for several weeks. The wise heads in the government no doubt fear similar insurrection and want to head off any possibility (no matter how unlikely) of it happening on our little benighted island. Uncontrolled working class aggression linked with uncontrolled sexual passion represent the two bugbears of any right thinking conservative. Repressing the expression in public of both these instincts almost constitutes the whole of the conservatives view of what government exists to do.

tony said...

"Ministry of Culture" has a sinister ring to it. There are lots of them now (Britain, NZ, Turkey etc). But which was the first country to have one? Nazi Germany? And aren't there Ministries of Culture in Brave New World and/or 1984 performing exactly this function of censorship? Anyone out there remember?

Malcs said...

Interesting post - I'm going to try and comment here because Alternate Seat of TYR doesn't ever seem to register my comments (it's not like they're full of swears or anything).

With respect to Fellow Traveller, I don't think Burnham's comments have anything to do with recent events in Greece. He's a typical New Labourite in that he's a reasonably intelligent person aping the narrow world view of a provincial moron in the interests of winning marginal votes. The internet censorship stuff is more akin to gov initiatives like the Byron Review on children's websites and gaming, or the binge-drinking and obesity scares. It's pandering to petit bourgeois morality.

As far as transatlantic co-operation is concerned, here is Secretary Michael Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security speaking at the Cyber Security Inquiry:

"I'm very sensitive to the fact that the culture of the internet, as well as the actual architecture, is one which does not lend itself to government regulation and mandates. I think it would be a very dangerousroad to go down to have a lot of effort to have the government lay a heavy hand on the internet. There are countries in the world that do that, and they do it for nefarious purposes".

Granted, Chertoff is of the outgoing administration (and was the author of the PATRIOT Act) but he has served in Democrat administrations as well and I don't think views on internet regulation differ that radically cross-party in the States. Besides which, when it comes to internet regulation, the number 1 topic in the US right now is network neutrality, not child-proofing websites. So I don't think Burnham's going to have much joy getting agreement of any kind on this measure.

cian said...

Isn't your response a little bit over the top. Unless I've missed something, all he's suggesting is that ISPs should have to provide packages that allow parents to limit the kinds of websites their children can access. Now one can argue with this, but you seem to be arguing with a position he hasn't actually taken.

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