Rory Cellan-Jones

Dear Andy, can we talk?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Dec 08, 11:45 GMT

Oh dear Mr Burnham - you surely cannot have expected a little light musing in the Daily Telegraph to have turned you into the blogosphere's Public Enemy Number One? On Saturday the culture secretary gave one of those broad-ranging interviews to a national newspaper which eager politicians are wont to do at this time of year.

Andy BurnhamThe problem was, he threw into the mix, along with some hints about how Channel 4 might be funded, some thoughts on ways of regulating the internet. There was vague talk of "cinema-style, age-ratings for websites", mutterings about ISPs being forced to provide child-safe services, and of negotiations with the incoming Obama administration on new international rules for English-language websites.

When I heard about this on Saturday morning's radio news bulletin, my first thought was that a web storm was about to break over his head, and so it has proved. He has been attacked, abused, and mocked for days now - and one blogger went so far as to set up a Twitter account in his name in an attempt, he says, to educate him about just how the internet works. The Twitter administrators have now deleted the account.

A couple of things strike me. First, yes, Andy Burnham's suggestion that Britain and the US could get together and impose some sort of web code does beg all sorts of questions. Who would decide what was permissible? How would trillions of constantly changing websites be policed? How would it work with existing ratings schemes such as PICS, set up by the W3C consortium? And isn't it up to parents, not the state, to watch over the way their children use the web?

Then again perhaps the blogosphere is underestimating the subtlety of Mr Burnham's approach. After all, it was unlikely to have been the primary audience he had in mind when he made his remarks to the Telegraph. He may be betting that millions of parents share his concerns, and sense of helplessness about the web. He is also probably correct in thinking that governments are more able these days to apply pressure on both ISPs and on major web international brands than web libertarians would like to think. So, for instance, suggesting industry-wide "take-down" times for sites like YouTube and Facebook to remove offensive material may not actually be as naïve as the blogosphere believes. Whether more regulation of the internet is actually a good thing is of course another matter, and of course one on which the BBC has no opinion whatsoever!

But perhaps we all need to move on. Mr Burnham could explain more clearly exactly what he has in mind in terms of producing a safer web - and his online opponents could explain, probably in less sarcastic language, just why they think those proposals would not work, and whether there is any role for government here. The culture secretary's web-savvy colleague Tom Watson has used his blog to invite views on Mr Burnham's "cinema-style ratings plan", and promises to forward them, but that is a bit of a one-way process, not the conversation that the blogosphere prefers.

So here is an invitation, Mr B. Why not come on to "" and start a dialogue with those critics who believe you just don't understand the web? You would be very welcome - as would anyone else with views on this matter.


  • Comment number 1.

    Any concerned parents should just go to, you don't need to install anything just set-up an account and change your DNS to theirs (it's easily explained, if not let them get the 14 year old kid their worried about to do it!) and set-up the filters, there are 30 categories or so. It works much better than any tat any Government would produce ever would, and it's free. Or, if the parent can't do that, take the computer downstairs and stick it somewhere they can see, unless they're too busy doing something (drinking, watching Jeremy Kyle, reading the Daily Mail & complaining ...) to, you know, parent.

    Burnham is clearly unfit for the job - an understanding of the field should surely be a requirement for the job ... or, supporting the Great Leader; one of the two certainly!

    As for cinema style ratings, how would they work? Would my site need to be classified by a pen pusher, presumably for a cost? Even though the site may make little, if any, money.

    If, like this site, it has a comment system, would the rating change based on what people said? Would we hire thousands of pen pushers, presumably in a Labour-marginal, to go through the web looking at these sites as they change?

    What would the BBC be rated? It has videos of war & terrorists, I guess that's an 18 then! Or, better yet, the system is 'smart' so some stories (like Gordon saves the world) are U but those nasty stories (terrorists - unless we've cracked a plot, war - unless we're winning, Gordon looks a fool - ie. always) would be 18 and need an ID card before viewing, and a small payment for processing that.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think that Mr Burnham and all the rest of our "elected" government need to keep their heads firmly shoved up their asses instead of poking their noses into matters which do not concern them.

    Parents should be responsible for what their children view on the web, not the government.

    I wouldn't be surprised if this is another back-door attempt at getting ID cards forced through for everyone.

    New Labour would be well to remember it is "we the people" not "We, New Labour".

  • Comment number 3.

    Given the extremely negative reaction (from "web-liberterians" and technologists alike) to the Australian government's plans to police the internet, I find Mr Burnham's vague proposals to be amusing, at the least.

    Not only are there the dangers of the government (or governments) determining what is suitable content for general consumption, there is also the rather difficult technological issue. Rating and filtering would require sophisticated technology which will be expensive, prone to error, and impose a cost in terms of available bandwidth.

    The only option is at the point of access - parents have a wide range of options available for filtering software to be run on their computers and protect their children from dodgy sites and content. But that would pass the responsibility back onto the parents - and apparently, governments don't trust them anymore.

  • Comment number 4.

    "He may be betting that millions of parents share his concerns, and sense of helplessness about the web."

    I'm sure you are right but if that was his genuine concern, why not focus the attention on educating parents to use existing solutions?

    @#1, sites involving one part of my main hobby could be interesting terms of ratings. I could find songs of murder, rape, hangings, containing "foul" language, arguably, depending on viewpoint (eg. Irish rebel songs), terrorism, etc.

    Of course in the context of folk song, it (at least IMO) is valid.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think a lot of comments on Tom Watson's site were quite considered...

    What is patently obvious is that Mr Burnham doesn't understand Digital Literacy. There appears to be no government agenda for this in schools and hence the lockdown and reactive policies he suggests rather than education and reflectivity on the part of parents, teachers and students. It is a typical head-in-the-sand approach - spend loads of money contracting out to a "service" rather than build a community of good exemplars and use. Put money in the wrong place and compound it by wasting those funds when they could be much better put into continual professional develpment for teachers. He should, perhaps, begin by reading the Byron report which has a very measured outlook on the same subject before he goes off to pronounce to the Telegraph in an ad hoc and uniformed way.

    It's a pity that Digital Literacy just does not feature on the government's agenda for education but to quote from Diane Laurillard's paper on Open Teaching recently.

    "Education systems change slowly because they tend to be hierarchical
    command-control systems, rather than devolved-power adaptive systems.
    Teachers and lecturers are given neither the power nor the means to
    improve the nature and quality of the teaching-learning process through
    technology (Elton, 1999). "

    Essentially it is too risky for the government to sanction reflectivity and awareness to tackle navigating inappropriate web content - it's cheaper and requires less intellectual muscle to talk of lockdown - it sounds good but is, really is, impractical and lazy. It disempowers parents, students and teachers - it wrests the power to make decisions from them and creates a white list that may block out many excellent web 2.0 and other resources. Is that measured and insightful enough for you Rory?

    If children are taught to navigate around inappropriate content when they come across it and to know the dangers and pitfalls then when might actually get a world class education system. At present many good Web 2.0 sites are locked down because of fear of inappropriate content suddenly emerging out of the mist.

    Our children would never cross any roads if we applied the same thinking to road safety.

  • Comment number 6.

    Far too nice to the idiot. But to be fair, he is only running decoy for the EU and Labour's desperate desire to stop internet criticism of government - the UK one in Brussels as well as Labour's parish council in Westminster. When the scheme fails to "protect" a single child, it won't matter, because the scheme is really intended to pre-vet all content, and ban any content critical of labour and the EU.

  • Comment number 7.

    @Post 1,

    Agree 100%. OpenDNS is an incredible free service, and as long as you can lock down the DNS settings (so they can't be changed), it is pretty much the answer to all your problems.

    We used to use software that cost a lot of money and headaches to manage what people could and couldn't access in our work network. Now, we use OpenDNS and it does the rest.

    @Post 4,

    As well as blacklisting by category or domain, you can also whitelist using the same method. So you can block all social networking sites and whitelist facebook, so you can't access anything except facebook.

    It's incredibly simple, and incredibly powerful. I point all my DNS settings on every computer I manage to OpenDNS.

  • Comment number 8.


    "Would we hire thousands of pen pushers, presumably in a Labour-marginal"


    "UK one in Brussels as well as Labour's parish"

    I may be misreading but, am I seriously being asked to believe that "Internet Control" is a [Nu (to me big business interests under another name)] Labour and an EU issue?

    Or that the US would have no interests in this? Or be the biggest player? Or that our Conservatives in power would be different?

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    He has an outmoded paradigm, based on the idea that the net is TV with a bit of interactivity stirred in.

    We are all potential publishers now, not supine consumers lapping up the output of a few easily regulated media conglomerates.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Regulating" Rory?

    Not a very apposite word. Here's part of what Burnham said "There is content that should just not be available to be viewed". That isn't regulation - not some age related catagorisation: that's a simple slashing censorship.

    Play it down, I have no doubt he will play it down too, but the fact of the matter is that this government has contempt for free speech, and contempt for us bloggers hwo make use of it. Oh, and we reflect that, right back at him.

    More here

  • Comment number 12.

    See posts 9 and 11

    It seems that the censors are already in control.

  • Comment number 13.

    Please can the BBC explain why they have deleted my post number 9?

    Is it too hot for you to handle?

  • Comment number 14.

    Censorship or bowdlerization of any kind is unacceptable.

    Coming from the nation that gave the world "The Benny Hill Show" this announcement is rather surprising.

    Who decides what is good, bad or indifferent? Politicians up for re-election? Priests? Imams? Rabbis? Evangelists? Psychologists? Scientologists? Benny Hill?

    Should such a plan come to fruition, will websites eventually be rated for their religious content so christian or jewish-oriented webpages may be filtered out by muslim parents or governments? Will Baptist parents be able to deny their children knowledge about other religious points of view?

    Nudity? The Japanese children seem to grow up quite psychologically sound even though many frequent communal baths.

    How is mind-control of any sort "in the public interest?"

    Free societies are free of censorship. Controlled societies--such as theocracies--are not.

  • Comment number 15.

    It's things like that mindless attempts to follow 1984 and Animal Farm that make me happy to have left the UK.

    And something else. What was it now?... Ah, the weather.

    ps: comment 14, Mr McCright, you're living in the History Books regarding Japan.

  • Comment number 16.

    I am all for freedom of speech, but the www is a perfect example of what freedom of speech is NOT meant to be.

    In the very early days of the web, the days when the Geeks that set up slashdot thought they had all the power and the rights, child pornography was rife on usenet and other chat and sharing systems. It grew exponentially, unchecked by any, including the ISPs who let it pass through their newsgroup interfaces without a second glance.

    All though it horrified many, its existence was defended on some strange principle that with freedom you take the rough with the smooth.

    Some of us simply objected to its very existence, let alone the home it was making in our communities. And as more ordinary people joined the internet and began to outnumber the selfish first exploiters of this system, the horrified started to outnumber the so called defenders of freedom.

    To those pundits who fight for freedom of speech and expression on the internet, the game is mostly a selfish one. To hell with anyone else, they want to be able to watch and broadcast anything they like - however sordid, horrific and abusive it may be.

    The Porn industry used to claim that without them there would be no internet as they were the largest grossing sector. Complete rubbish of course, it was a wonderful myth peddled out to those who did not understand how the internet worked; the money gained went straight into the pockets of the pornographers - no where else.

    The problem with the internet is those who wish to draw lines somewhere are often silenced through the ridicule of bloggers.

    Whether Andy Burnham's ideas are practical or not, his ideology is sound. And I am with him in refusing to pander to zitty, script kiddies who in between writing computer software, go round searching for beheading videos and wrecking online communities because they are a-social nobodies.

    And before people think I am some old wrinkly without the foggiest, I am involved with running an online game - I know what I am talking about.

    The internet is full of the most horrific junk. Not a little bit of it in some hidden corner, but tons of it.

    My kids, despite the fact that I run good filters on my network have often been exposed to stuff put on the semi-private free bulletin boards run by kids that has horrified them.

    Some of this is from spammers who leave their vile trash everywhere for no other reason than they can. The rest is from the kids themselves.

    As the Lord of the Flies tried to show, a leaderless society without common rules will tend to default to the lowest common denominator.

    The internet is a society completely devoid of leadership and example, it is headless being with no direction or agenda. And rather than becoming a hot bed of idealism, it is simply a cesspit of that which is least desirable in the human being; a swap shop of the hideous.

    I still use the internet because I must - the media world that I inhabit for my living has sold it soul to internet communication and I have no option than to put up with it.

    But I question the mire that it has become, perhaps has always been, and I find trendy pundits defending it because they see themselves as cutting edge and bohemian somehow inept and pathetic.

  • Comment number 17.

    Gurubear... Why do you work with computers if you believe them to be this big horrible thing? I think you may your priorities mixed up a bit, there is far more good on the internet than there is bad.

    I do not condone child pornography, I do not oppose adult pornography, I fully support distributed computing because the "leaderless internet" means that poeple who are not leaders can actually get on with doing something good that any Western Government has ZERO interest in... Medical Research, Prolpulsion Research, Fusion Research!!!!

    My computer dedicates processor time to these kind of projects as part of the free BOINC program that can be downloaded. Come on man, have a brighter outlook on the world. It's good for you and before long you will see just how much better the internet is for the good of people than bad.

  • Comment number 18.

    Mighty Morfa

    You miss my point. I do not hate computers, I do not hate the technology of the internet. Indeed I was in there before it happened.

    However, what I object to is the defence of the ethos of free speech that grew up with the internet that would happily sacrifice decency and good judgement for an idealism that has proved unworkable not just on the internet in this century, but many times before going back millennia, in all probability.

    Everytime any politician or even a concerned parent stands up and says they object to nasty things out there on the web, they are barracked by pundits and the media and ignorant bloggers (which indeed I am also perhaps one) and told to "grow up," "Stop being a pathetic care bear," "Oh, it wont harm them," "don't you know where the off switch is?" "Oh, here is the sad nanny state," and so on.

    It seems the minority feel it is their right to do what they like and the majority of the rest of us will just have to go to the trouble of trying to filter it out with things like openDNS which is only partly effective.

    The problem now, just as it has always been, is that it is the minority that have the loudest voice. The media loves them and will always give them air to speak because it makes a good programme.

    Yes, of course there is plenty of good things out there - wikipedia is the most famous example, but there are many, many others.

    It is just a shame that to get to the good stuff we are forced to wade through the gutter.

    I was involved in a wonderful musical file sharing system between composers a few years ago. A just for fun private chain composition which was made possible by the internet - a good use of the technology.

    We had to abandon it when it got hacked and our files replaced with some really foul porn and Nazi propaganda. There was no reason for this, no virus, no links to take our money, nothing. It was just done because some nasty minded people could.

    As I said before, I use every kind of filter I can without bringing the use of the internet to a halt, and yet still my 13 year old girl found hard core porn on a little innocent forum she uses, put there by a spammer.

    Why should she be subjected to that just so some armchair pundit can defend their dodgy idealism?

    I have been 30 years in the music and recording industries as both a rock musician and a recording engineer - I never saw so much trash back in the seventies on tour as my kids get thrown at them now.

    I don't think the internet has created this environment, but it has given it a vehicle and the air to survive in a way that has never happened before.

    Put it this way, a sysadmin friend of mine who has always advocated complete freedom of speech about everything, is now talking about the possibility of censorship because of what he has to filter out for his own kids.

  • Comment number 19.

    This is the sort of bilge put out by under informed junior ministers, in governments that have almost run their course.

    Burnham needs to know that 'culture' in this instance does not mean Gustav Klimt, Hugo von Hofmanstahl, Georg Christoph Wagenseil, focus groups, that idiot Greer, rows of bricks in the Tate, it means technical culture.

    How are these idiots selected?

    Were I GB I'd sack him forthwith. Failure to do so will only add to his problems.

  • Comment number 20.

    Here's a government minister who clearly doesn't understand the Internet, and then demonstrates this lack of understanding by proposing something unsuitable, unworkable, unwanted and is little better than soundbite politics.

    As an IT consultant, (I wrote the UK's first guide to getting online) and one who has just finished working on an Internet project for the Dept for Business, I'd be more than happy for the government to give me a call so that I can educate the ministers on what might actually be a suitable IT policy.

    If the government thinks age ratings are the way forward, maybe they could try it with an easier target such as soap operas so that I can decide in advance if each episode is suitable for my children to watch.

    Since my time working in government departments brings me into contact with government IT systems, I know that these systems employ web filtering technology. Why does the minister not recommending that parents use similar technology or is he admitting that either the government systems are so hopelessly overpriced that parents can't afford them or so hopelessly ineffective that the wrong solutions have been deployed in government? There are several good, cheap solutions out there that any government minister who stands up to talk about IT should be pointing parents towards as part of an overall solution rather than the absurd route of rating each page.

  • Comment number 21.

    I generally agree that ministers and MPs are reasonably intelligent people with a modicum of ethical standards. However, given that AB is the clown who was responsible for the slandering of Shami Chakrabati and David Davis earlier in 2008 I can only conclude he is either a fool or a knave. Consequently (on the 2 strikes and your out principle) I assume he either does not understand what he is talking about or does, but is happy to talk bilge if it will attract a cheap headline. On reflection I am pretty sure he is a fool and a knave.

  • Comment number 22.

    Mr. petokyo

    While it is true than many adminsitrative regions in Japan require the separation of sexes in public baths, this is not the case everywhere in Japan, especially at the outlying hot spring resorts--the island of Miyajima, for example.

  • Comment number 23.

    @16 Gurubear
    I think that everyone knows what is and is not acceptable and I think you are right to point out that by defending freedom of speech in such an unreasonable fashion almost gives a defence to those sections of the internet that don't deserve it aiding them and therefore making the idea of censoring child pornography unthinkable or indefensable on some wierd obtuse level. So kudos to you for pointing out a very important flaw in the whole "I may not like what you look at on the internet but we defend your right to view it"

    I think what I do abject to though is the idea that it would be our government who would get to pick and choose what would be censored. I don't feel confortable with the government or any other organisation who could be biased or corrupted censoring what they or powers higher decide is worthy of a censor, without it all being in the public domain and the process being completely transparant. How would we know what had been censored? Explicit images of children, sure that's a given. Document highlighing labor spin? who knows, it was censored so we'd never see it. Civilian casualties in Iraq, some one may have decided that it was in our best interests to remove it.

    And aren't the IWF already doing this job? Why do we need the government to do the same job at an increased cost? Maybe the government should give this well meaning organisation increased funding or more powers? Surely the cost of any proposed new system could be given to them to help with thier thankless task? Surely thier staff are already trained up and know the web like the back of thier collective hands.

    Rory have you heard anything back from Mr Burnham? I notice his silence on the matter says an awful lot...


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