Would Facebook's much-debated breastfeeding photo ban be solved with a "cinema-style" ratings system for websites? Or would labeling sites as "rated-R" to keep away the easily offended just compound the conundrum?
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, British Culture Secretary Andy Burnham suggested the possibility on Saturday of such a set of guidelines on content and decency, setting off commenters and bloggers.
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Many jumped on the impracticality of an Internet ratings system, because of the unique and ever-changing nature of the medium. "In contrast to movie rentals, theater tickets, and even video game purchases, a website has no single point-of-sale at which an adult can act to restrict a minor's access," wrote John Stokes at Ars Technica.
Don Reisinger over at CNET points out how trying to police a website could quickly get out of hand.
Sure, the article itself is fine for children, but calling others names, cursing, or using other generally unaccepted language probably isn't rated PG, right? Realizing that, maybe we should rate the content PG, but the comments R. But then again, not all the comments are bad and many are educational. Should we then start rating individual comments? If so, who will be given that menial task?
Will Obama go along?
One point that bloggers took particular notice of was Mr. Burnham's hope that his country would work cooperatively with the Obama administration to implement the ratings system. "The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause," Burnham said. But don't look for the Obama administration to come out gunning for web ratings. US News & World Report blogger Matt Bandyk wrote:
The possibility of the Obama administration coming aboard seems purely speculative. For one thing, it is much more difficult to make the argument, as Burnham does, that the "public interest" should outweigh free speech in the U.S. than in Britain. The First Amendment provides something of a flag for free speech defenders to wave that other countries lack.
Many bloggers, including PC World's Scott Nichols, feel parenting is where monitoring and restricting children's web access should start – and end. He points to dismal experiences with the rating system already in place for video games and writes:
I don't see ratings for Web sites faring any better if parents don't start taking responsibility for their children and paying attention to what their kids are watching and doing online. I know it is not popular to blame the parents, but it's the truth. Any parents who are not already monitoring what their kids do on the Internet will not do anything differently just because a rating system is in place.
Censorship or no?
Despite claims to the contrary, Burnham insists his proposal isn't about censorship. In an interview with the BBC, he said, "It's not about banning or stopping people having that freedom of expression. It's simply about clearer signposting, more information, so people know where they're working."