Ratings would be only part of solution

Published 9:02 pm Monday, December 29, 2008

Radio is watched carefully by the Federal Communications Commission, TVs offer parental controls and movies have a ratings system. But the Internet?

Since its use became widespread more than a decade ago, nothing has governed the content of the latest frontier of entertainment and information. That could be viewed as a positive (the freedom of speech guaranteed in our Constitution) or a negative (children’s unimpeded access to vulgar material).

Britain’s culture secretary, Andy Burnham, wants to bring the Internet in line with older mediums and institute ratings much like those used for films.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view,” Burnham told The Daily Telegraph. “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.

“We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

Burnham proposes ratings on all English-language Web sites and said he plans to negotiate with President-elect Barack Obama’s administration in an effort to draft international standards. It’s an interesting if not completely original idea, and it’s worth speculating just what this kind of system would mean for the Internet’s effect on society.

The ratings, one supposes, would have to be posted on any page associated with a given Web site. That’s great, but it wouldn’t change anything other than to give kids an idea of how vulgar the site is compared to other sites. And if we’re counting on parents to be there looking over their kid’s shoulder at all times, then we don’t need ratings anyway.

The only way the ratings would work is if Web browsers gave administrative users (parents) the ability to set a cut-off for the material other users can view. That sort of thing is available now but probably not in as efficient a manner as the ratings would make possible.

In the end, the responsible use of any technology will come down to parents being able to teach their kids how to make responsible decisions.