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UK.gov says: Regulate the internet

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As unemployment looks set to soar in the months ahead, quangocrat and soon to be outgoing head of Ofcom Lord David Currie appears to have discovered a cunning plan to find jobs for tens of thousands. The time for regulating the internet is nigh – and Ofcom could be the body to do it.

In fairness, Lord Currie seems merely to be recognising a change in political direction. Until very recently, the government approach to internet content was mostly hands off. This is no longer so, as recent initiatives on terror, suicide and porn all indicate.

Answering questions from the floor at the Royal Television Society conference in London last month, Minister for Truth Andy Burnham said:

"The time has come for perhaps a different approach to the internet. I want to even up that see-saw, even up the regulation [imbalance] between the old and the new."

The idea that the internet was "beyond legal reach" and a "space where governments can't go" was no longer the case.

In his final annual lecture for Ofcom last week Lord Currie expressed a belief that tighter regulation was coming. He said: "Ask most legislators today and, where they think about it, they will say that period [of forbearance] is coming to an end."

His comments are not so much a call for a new role for Ofcom as a recognition that such a role may be coming. A spokesperson for Ofcom added that decisions would need to be taken by the government, particularly as to where any new regulatory responsibility would lie.

Ofcom is not pitching for such responsibility. Rather it is highlighting the importance of issues that are likely to arise from this new government direction.

One such issue is just how practical it would be to put in place any form of regulation based on site – or even page – classification.

According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be "over-burdensome". We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: "bonkers". We asked again last week.

The Ministry did not feel they could elucidate further. A spokesperson explained that as the UK Council for Child Safety on the Internet had only just been set up, and would be making recommendations about regulating the internet in due course, "it wouldn't be helpful or appropriate for us to speculate about what those recommendations might be".

In other words, Ministerial speculation is okay, but speculating about speculation is not. The Reg took up the challenge and with the help of a pencil and the back of an envelope came to some startling conclusions.

Youtube puts up approximately 10 hours – or 600 minutes – of new content every minute. Classifying that material would take 600 people watching 24 hours a day. Assuming that individuals could function productively for six hours, YouTube has just gained an additional 2,400 employees.

They would also need managing, and if the decisions they were called upon to take were more challenging than a simple adult/non-adult divide, a large number of extra bodies would be required to ponder borderline decisions made.

That takes the total extra staff to 3,000, maybe 4,000-plus – for just the one company. But while YouTube is the largest and most obvious recipient of government attention, the same principles would hold with any web site that hosted significant amounts of user-generated content.

Once material has been classified, there is then the small issue of applying that classification. The IWF has been engaged in discussion with the government about a possible future role for it in the policing of extreme porn. According to the IWF, there would be a certain reluctance to add potential extreme porn sites to their filtering system as they fear that the numbers involved would be too large and the result would most likely be a serious degradation of service.

A similar conclusion has been reached by Australian ISP’s, which fear that the government there is about to impose compulsory content filtering on them.

A report in January of this year suggests that filtering at the levels now being proposed would cripple internet speed.

Thankfully, not every Member of Parliament is quite so gung ho when it comes to internet content. Don Foster, LibDem Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport said: "Andy Burnham’s comments reveal his naivety about the online world. While people justifiably have anxieties about internet content, and we are right to address issues such as child safety online, our response to this should not be to apply inappropriate regulations to the medium." ®

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