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Burnham lets slip UK.gov real view of the net

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The UKCCIS is go, with the aim of making the internet safe for kids. But is this the beginning of the end of the internet as we know it, or just a Minister reaching for the inevitable soundbite to round off a PR triumph?

As we reported, Monday saw the launch of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). This is one of the chief results of the Byron Review (pdf), and unites the great and the good of the internet world, under the guidance of Gordon Brown, in an effort to make the internet fit for our children.

One way in which it will do that is by preventing children from accessing "inappropriate content". In its first release, the Council declared that it would "establish voluntary codes of practice for user-generated content sites, making such sites commit to take down inappropriate content within a given time".

Although the release may appear consistent with the principles contained in the Byron Review, it is actually a serious extension of it. Preventing children from accessing content that is inappropriate to them has been subtly upgraded to a requirement that user-generated sites take down "inappropriate content".

According to the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), who are also members of UKCCIS, the best route is "through end-user filtering and parental supervision". In this, they are singing from the same hymn sheet as the US Federal Court, which recently followed the Supreme Court in arguing that improvements in filtering software were helping to put control of internet access back where it belonged – with parents, not government.

ISPA added: "[We] would be concerned by moves to force the owners of user-generated content sites to proactively monitor and censor content. The vast quantity of content uploaded to such sites makes the possibility of applying rigid censorship views to content next to impossible."

Everyone involved in the UKCCIS – including the Department of Children Schools and Families – is keen to stress that it is not about censoring the wider internet. Unfortunately, the implication of the UKCCIS release completely contradicts this reassurance.

Which is where our soundbite comes in. Shortly after the launch meeting of the UKCCIS, Culture and Media Secretary, Andy Burnham, was heard to remark: "We have to start talking more seriously about standards and regulation on the internet.

"I don't think it is impossible that before you download something there is a symbol or wording which tells you what's in that content. If you have a clip that is downloaded a million times then that is akin to broadcasting.

"It doesn't seem over-burdensome for these to be regulated."

These are either the words of someone who hasn’t the first idea how user-generated content works – or alternatively, a man with a very sinister plan indeed. YouTube alone is estimated to generate ten hours of new content every minute. Similar ratios are to be found on other popular user-driven sites.

So it is possible he just doesn’t get it - that he doesn't understand how the user-driven aspects of the internet are making it into a very different place from the good old days of push-content web 1.0.

Mr Burnham is not a fan of the user-generated side of the internet. In a a speech to the Royal Television Society last week, he appeared to take another swipe at user-generated content, contrasting it unfavourably with opinion delivered by traditional channels.

"The internet as a whole is an excellent source of casual opinion," he said. "TV is where people often look for expert or authoritative opinion."

While the internet contains much that is tawdry and second-rate, at its best it is also more than capable of leading the way for the rest of the world. The main difference is that government can regulate broadcasting - but at present has no such luxury over the internet.

Governments across Europe are not altogether happy with the way in which user-generated content is allowing debate to open up on issues in ways they can no longer control. Recent abortive attempts by the European Parliament to clamp down on blogs are just one example of this trend.

In the UK, government has begun to take a more active stance on taking down content deemed to be "inappropriate" – with the Home Office actively pursuing plans to block material that is not actually illegal to possess.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that although the Byron Review considers a range of options for protecting children – of which content regulation is just one – the first pronouncements of a key Minister of State following the launch of the UKCCIS home in on regulation.

In June, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee delivered its report on what it considered to be harmful content on the internet. Recommendations from that report are due to be released to Parliament next week. Those interested in the future shape of the internet in the UK would do well to keep an ear open for any further casual remarks by Mr Burnham. ®

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