Ratings for Websites?

By Miss Cellania
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

PG rating

Andy Burnham is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in England. He is also concerned about what his children see on the internet.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama’s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

The Cabinet minister describes the internet as “quite a dangerous place” and says he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.

Giving film-style ratings to individual websites is one of the options being considered, he confirms. When asked directly whether age ratings could be introduced, Mr Burnham replies: “Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.”

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.

OK, I have children myself. They are not allowed to access my site or any of the sites I work for without my permission. But they have at times, and no harm has come to them, except that I had to discuss with them the dangers of leaving my URL on the school computer’s history (it’s a private school, and we could be kicked out). And they’ve found inappropriate content a time or two, but clicked away quickly -kind of like when I found grandpa’s girly magazines. That’s part of growing up, and I try to stay on top of it as much as I can. But this plan to rate the entire English language internet is not going to happen. And if it does, it won’t accomplish the intended goal.

1. What Burnham is proposing is NOT the same as the movie ratings.

In the movie business, ratings are voluntary. A feature film goes to the Motion Picture Association of America and the studio pays to have a rating assigned. The MPAA rates it and the studio can appeal or make edits to get the rating changed. The film does not have to be rated. However, the big features want ratings because they can’t get booked into theaters otherwise, not by government mandate, but by business decision. Unrated movies make theaters (and the business as a whole) look bad -or they did at one time. Stroll into any video store and you’ll find many unrated movies. That usually means they went directly to video. If the movie is not good enough for a theatrical release, why bother paying for a rating? Parents know that unrated movies are a crap shoot for both adult content and overall quality.

2. This is not feasible.

The MPAA rates maybe a couple hundred theatrical films every year. Compare that to multiple millions of websites available on the internet, with hundreds more added every day. How many hundreds of people are you going to hire to rate them? Will each page be examined? And who is going to pay for this? It would either be a tax on all citizens, an internet usage tax with all the extra trouble and expense that entails, or a tax on website owners. Think of the massive expenditures a program like this would require, and compare it to making internet censorship the responsibility of parents. Like it is now.

3. This cannot be fairly executed.

Think of a website, any website, and try to predict what its fate would be under a government ratings system. Impossible. My site has some pretty risque jokes, but no nudity. I do have links to nudity, with a NSFW warning. I also allow some swear words, but not others. I would prefer my children not to read the dirty jokes, but the world is not going to end if they do. OK, what’s my rating? Some days you can read the 15 posts on my front page and find nothing that’s even questionable. Other days, you might see some adult subjects. Is the person rating my website a prude? Is he/she going to read past the front page? What standards will be in place, who writes the standards, and will there be an appeal process? Talk about a bureaucratic nightmare!

A couple of examples here at Geeks Are Sexy comes to mind. The Best Commercial EVER featured a video with nudity. It was clearly marked NSFW. Now, here’s where movies are different from websites: no one had to watch it. You have to physically push “play” to view material that you are warned about. How would this be rated? What if the “adult” material were put behind a fold? This kind of post doesn’t show up regularly here at GAS, but under a ratings system, it could affect the entire site.

The other post to consider is Intelligent Men = Better Sperm. This is only a discussion about a science article, but there are a couple of humorous throwaway lines that could sway a prudish rater. If a discussion about sperm count can put an entire site in peril, you’ve effectively banned biology from the web. My fifth grader would have trouble researching taxonomy or evolution. Existing filters illustrate this problem, when a high school student cannot research breast cancer because the word “breast” causes legitimate information to be blocked.

And then there’s the free speech argument. Even an attempt to implement a ratings system for the internet is going to be tied up in courts for years and years because it would affect so many people, and there will be unintended consequences. Plus, there is real hubris involved if Burnham thinks laws in England and the US are going to cover all English language sites. Even if you could make such a system simple, fair, and honest, it will never accomplishing the goal of protecting children from distasteful content. English speaking surfers can easily find non-English porn, with just the touch of a button.

The Hollywood movie system is business. The ratings are good for business most of the time, or it would have never survived this long. The internet is information. Parts of it are business, but it’s also communication, news, entertainment, education, and a social gathering place. The web and the vast majority of its citizens will stymie this kind of regulation, as well it should.

[Picture Source: What’s My Blog Rated?]

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9 Responses to Ratings for Websites?

  1. Well obviously the MPAA system is probably something Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in England hasn't bothered considering.

    But the whole plan is laughable really, kind of embarrassing. I'm not really sure how he plans to accomplish this without some Great-Firewall-Of-China-esque infrastructure. Unless it's only UK-based websites they'll be expecting to apply for a rating….by whom btw?

    Stupid.

  2. At least we're closing out 2008 with the worst idea of the year.

    Please, keep everyone's government out of internet content ratings. I'll monitor my kids my way, you monitor yours your way.

  3. If Andy Burnham is truly concerned about what his children see on the Internet, perhaps he should start being a parent and teach his children, rather than steering governments to imprint his apparent failure to do so on the rest of us.

    And the nanny state creeps a little farther into the online world…

  4. Wow, Marisa and Ebn said it perfectly. Take care of your own kids. This is how it should be.

    Let me take care of myself too. Stop telling me what I can and can not do with my own body. Who has that right?

  5. It's been awhile since I've seen an idea that was so "undoable". Why not make more government rules? For heavens sake the Internet is a "living" thing. Parents need to take more responsibility for the actions of their children. You can't just leave them alone with the Internet, that's like leaving them alone with a stranger.

    IMO, government needs to rate itself by finding the graft and greed within.

  6. Marisa & Ebn win the day. It's very simple & always has been. Monitor your own fucking kids! Start out by not letting them read this comment!

  7. Aww, I was almost hoping their was a link to 'automagically rate' my blog. Out of curiosity alone. I could actually see sites doing it and displaying it just because we find the idea so ridiculous that it's funny.

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