Cinema-style content ratings for websites

Dafydd Vaughan on 29 December 2008

Film-style ratings could be applied to websites in the UKRecently, the UK Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Andy Burnham did an interview with The Telegraph. During the interview he confirmed that the government was looking into a cinema-style rating system for websites.

As a web developer, hosting provider and internet user, I do not understand how such a scheme would be possible. There are a number of issues that need to be considered before anything like this is implemented in this (or any other) country.

Firstly – the majority of websites available on the internet are not hosted on servers based in the UK. As such, they are not under the jurisdiction of our laws. Additionally, hosting costs in the UK are significantly higher than other countries such as the United States and Europe. This poses a huge problem for such a scheme as the majority of websites are likely to ignore the requirement of content ratings and there is nothing our government can do apart from completely block access to unrated sites.

A rating scheme is also clearly open for abuse. As proved with cinema, video and game rating schemes already in place, a large proportion of people do not pay attention to them. Parents continue to buy 18 rated games for children of much younger age. In the case of this scheme, children would probably still be able to view websites not suitable for their age group unless there was some way of verifying their age.

Some sites already implement an ‘age filter’ of sorts. For example, the Guinness.com website asks for your date of birth before you enter the site. It doesn’t take much effort to work around this filter. It also isn’t best practice to provide your date of birth to any website as it could potentially be used for identity theft. Unless there is a way to safely and accurately identify a user’s age, a rating system can only act as a guide and would still require parents to monitor usage of the internet.

A further concern is how a website will actually be rated. Technically it is possible to rate the content of a website through the use of Meta tags (and a W3C standard already exists – PICS). But this plan would rely on a level of trust between website owners and users. What would stop me from running a “harmful” porn website, and classifying it as “suitable for all ages?”. A safer way to do it would be using third party rating systems, similar to the way secure certificates are provided at the moment. However this would likely incur a cost to the owner as the third party would need to validate the content of the site. An additional cost in development is likely to force website owners to look abroad for hosting services that do not require this level of regulation – harming the UK industry and making the rating system useless.

The only ‘safe’ way a rating system could be done is through an independent government funded organisation whose sole job it is to rate websites – similar to the BBFC. However this opens a whole new can of worms. Who would regulate the regulators. How can we ensure that the ratings are fair. How can we ensure that an anti-government website isn’t deemed “dangerous” and blocked by internet providers. How will it be paid for (it is bound to be extremely expensive)? An existing scheme like this has already come under heavy fire in recent weeks after the Internet Watch Foundation added a Wikipedia page to its block list, essentially stopping the whole of the UK from editing the site.

In the end, it just appears to be another plan by a government minister who does not know how the Internet works. For those who have read my blog for a while, I posted about a similar plan in May by the Home Secretary who wants a national database of all emails and phone calls sent in the UK.

Now, I’m all for making the internet safer for children and vulnerable people. However, systems already exist to do this – there is plenty of “Net nanny” software available to stop people accessing websites with certain keywords or content. You can even buy hardware solutions which will do it for you. We do not need the government deciding what is safe for us to view. This just brings us another step closer to countries like China.

I think it is about time the entire government is sent back to school to learn how the real world works, because they have quite clearly forgotten.

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