Report: Movie-Style Age Ratings Coming to Websites

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES — The British government is asking President-elect Barack Obama to help it bring the online version of movie ratings to the English-speaking web.

Calling the Internet "quite a dangerous place," U.K. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham told The Daily Telegraph that he wants Internet service providers (ISPs) to begin cleaning up the web by offering "child-safe" services including movie-style age ratings; as well as deploying other measures that will apply new standards of decency to the web.

The move is part of a new government crackdown on "offensive and harmful" Internet sites and activity scheduled for the New Year.

Burnham's big plans to control the Internet and censor certain websites are predictably facing stiff opposition from a wide variety of interests, but he remains undaunted.

"If you look back at the people who created the Internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn't reach," Burnham said. "I think we have to revisit that stuff seriously now. It's true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue."

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

"We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it," Burnham added.

While some proposals, such as those to curb copyright violations, could be implemented by ISPs, new laws could be enacted if such an approach proves unsuccessful. Citing the success of showing adult television content only after 9 p.m. as a measure to protect children, the minister called for formalized rules to prevent children from accessing inappropriate material.

"I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online," he said, calling for "more ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site; what standards it is operating to; [and] what protections are in place."

Burnham wants ISPs to provide "child-safe" web access and also wants to impose time limits within which websites would have to remove "offensive or harmful content" after being notified of its presence on the site. Specifically targeting user-generated sites such as Facebook and YouTube, penalties for missing the deadline to remove reported postings were not specified. Another provision calls for an update in libel laws to provide individuals who are defamed online with access to low-cost legal services.

Burnham stated that these new legal proposals being drafted by the Ministry of Justice are "utterly crucial" and will require the expected help of President-Elect Barack Obama to implement these major changes.

"The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause," Burnham said. "The more we seek international solutions to this stuff — the U.K. and the U.S. working together — the more that an international norm will set an industry norm."