Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/20/westminster_internet_debate/

MPs declare their ignorance on the web

If they're not ranting, they're bumbling

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 20th November 2008 12:58 GMT

Comment The times, they may be changing on the internet, but if our Parliament has anything to do with it, that change is unlikely to be for the better. The problem is that far too many MPs not only don’t get it when it comes to the net, they actively bask in their ignorance of new technology.

Two outwardly unconnected stories show how. This week, the stiff-collar brigade were out in force, exerting pressure on MP’s to tone down their blogs. The authorities have taken exception to some of the language used which, they feel, breaches Parliamentary etiquette.

So Paul Flynn MP has been asked to remove comments about fellow MPs Peter Hain and Lembit Opik. He compared Hain to a Star Trek character "who liquefies at the end of each day and sleeps in a bucket to emerge in another chosen shape the following morning". Mr Opik is merely a “clown” or a “turkey”.

Since Mr Flynn failed to comply, the authorities have removed a portion of his communications allowance, and he is now contributing £250 a year towards his site out of his own pocket. He said: "Imagine how boring it would be if the only thing you could say about other MPs were nice things. What the hell is the point of that?"

Meanwhile, last week’s Westminster Hall Debate on the Report on Harmful Content on the Internet, released earlier this year by the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport was chock-full of parliamentary courtesy.

Middle-aged speaker after middle-aged dinosaur lumbered up to make the same quaintly prehistoric self-deprecating joke about their technological incompetence and how little experience they had of the internet or computer gaming.

I'm thicker than a hoodie...

There was shock and horror at what “some people” got up to nowadays: much as though someone’s elderly maiden aunt had chanced upon a gaggle of teenagers smoking dope and groping one another.

How jolly! Except that these same legislators will soon be regulating the internet in the UK. Thus, more than one railed against Youtube for its irresponsible and self-serving view that policing its content would be practically and commercially difficult, when those nice people from Myspace had given ready assurances on the subject.

Does this illustrate much more than general ignorance of how these services differ? It clearly has nothing to do with the fact that Myspace sits squarely within the Murdoch stable of online publishing.

We do not expect every MP to have direct experience of every issue they legislate on - that is what fact-finding junkets are for. However, there is a real gulf between honourably admitting a shortfall in expert knowledge and this wilful dumbing down, especially when the sub-text of the humour is a much sadder admission that most MPs are not just incompetent as tech-users, but as parents. "We don’t know what our children get up to and we can’t control them, so we are going to regulate the net for everyone else."

In effect, they are diverting a serious debate on parenting into a rather less serious one about technology – and doing damage to our ability to benefit from that technology in the process.

Evidence-based policy? Conservative MP, John Whittingdale, observed: "If one looks for empirical, hard, factual evidence [of harm], there is very little. Our view was therefore not ... 'we cannot act,' but that we should act on the probability of risk."

Or on video games: "Part of the problem with video games ... is that there is no hard evidence ... Nevertheless, we agree that there is a probability that [harm] could occur, and there is anecdotal evidence."

Audible, too, was a grinding of gears as speeches shifted from laissez-faire, to "the need for self-regulation", then onward to standards, and finally hints that some legislation might after all be necessary to prod these standards into line. The mood was summed splendidly by another Conservative MP, John Hayes, who opined: "I hope that we will not hear the tired old argument about freedom."

So what did we learn? The internet is a huge and scary place where sex, suicide and guns are all too available. Video games can be pretty scary too.

There should be faster take-down, with easier access on the part of the public to an ISP’s take-down process: a league table of take-down times, backed by "name and shame" for those ISP’s who are slowest to respond.

The government is going to encourage a self-regulatory body for the internet – and if that doesn’t prove itself, then government reserves the right to wield a large stick.

Something must be done

There was some debate as to whether BBFC ratings, provided by the British Board of Film Classification or PEGI, the pan-European games industry system, would be more effective as a means to classify video games. But make no mistake, statutory classification is coming, almost certainly accompanied by some form of online age verification.

However, if the internet is scary, scariest of all is the emerging consensus between a bunch of serious people with very little empathy for new technology. That much surfaced in an odd little side-debate on the nature of bad taste video game "Kaboom" which, according to Conservative MP Edward Vaizey, was not legitimate because "it was created by an individual in his bedroom".

In much the same way, government has indigestion every time it tries to grapple with concepts such as web 2.0 or open source, because they are about individuals sharing freely, openly and often amateurishly. The value of such a culture is not measured by abstract notions of freedom – though those are important – but by the dynamism that such freedom introduces to technological development.

Select committees ought to be challenging government thinking on key issues. Not so here, where the committee welcomed government plans to corral the internet into a highly corporate legislative framework while simultaneously nodding approvingly at the Minister’s plans "to teach children the dangers of the internet".

Last word to a committee member who did not speak in the debate, but who did speak to The Register. Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders said: "Government – of whatever stripe – is happiest with traditional models of topdown publishing run by properly constituted enterprises that it can control and regulate.

"It finds the conversational anarchy on the web difficult to understand and definitely very difficult to deal with. Hence the authoritarian tendency in government thinking on the internet, which is never that far from the surface."

That is a lesson that Paul Flynn has learnt to his personal cost. ®