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Burnham's 'big moment'

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The culture secretary Andy Burnham has suggested the UK should lead an international effort to introduce cinema-style age ratings on websites to prevent children accessing "unacceptable" material online.

In interviews with the Telegraph and BBC, published on Saturday, Andy Burnham said it should be easier for parents to control what their children see with "clearer signposting".

He said: "I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online. You can still view content on the internet which I would say is unacceptable. You can view a beheading."

"There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people."

How Burnham proposes to promulgate his views of acceptability internationally wasn't made clear in either interview, but he conflated any moves to do so with the incoming Obama administration. "The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause," he said. "The more we seek international solutions to this stuff – the UK and the US working together – the more that an international norm will set an industry norm."

Burnham told the BBC any new rules would be run on a self-regulatory basis by the internet industry. Protection of copyright online should be part of a wide ranging debate, he added.

According to the Telegraph, Burnham's main goal is to compel ISPs to offer "child-safe" services. No details of what this could mean technologically were offered by the minister, although his comments are likely to prompt fears from civil liberties advocates of a similar policy to that currently being pursued by the Australian government. It is running trials with ISPs to serve up a version of the internet filtered against a state blocklist covering all kinds of "unnacceptable" material.

Currently in the UK, ISPs filter the internet against a blocklist provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, an industry body. At present it seeks only to block access to images of child sexual abuse.

Burnham said: "Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do. This isn't about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven't yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around."

He also wants websites that allow users to upload content to adhere to standard "take down times" once a video or other material is brought to their attention as offensive. The Ministry of Justice is also considering proposals to allow individuals cheap access to legal recourse if they believe they have been defamed online. Burnham said: "If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that governments couldn't reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now."

Whether any policy will emerge from Burham's musings on the state and the internet is unclear. The timing of his interviews in the post-Christmas news doldrums might suggest kite-flying, and the Telegraph's pieces are suspiciously peppered with profile-raising fluff about the rising New Labour star's family.

It's also nothing he hasn't said before.

Nevertheless, 2009 promises to be a pivotal year for government intervention on the internet.

Western administrations will be watching the Australian filtering project closely, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has announced he will use Italy's G8 presidency to "regulate the internet", and secretive talks for an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement look set to strengthen intellectual property rights online. ®

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