Policing the web (or not)

One question that has always gnawed at me about the whole internet malarkey is the issue of content regulation. Could we?

One question that has always gnawed at me about the whole internet malarkey is the issue of content regulation. Could we? Should we?

Well, just over a month ago, I attended a Westminster Media Forum (basically a talking shop involving government, regulators and industry) on the subjects of privacy, convergence and content regulation (I bring this up again now because I have just been emailed the official transcript of the event).

I asked Shaun Woodward MP, the minister for creative industries and tourism, whether he thought online content regulation would or could ever be a reality, given the international nature of the internet. I received a response which takes up several pages, but broadly follows the ultra-clear lines of:

"The publication of obscene pictures of children is clearly not something that any decent people would want to see. The issue is how you best protect the public and you stop the transmission of that material. Now in some areas it may best be achieved by regulation, in some areas it may best be achieved by self regulation, but again, there’s no question that, actually, as this industry evolved, because it isn’t static, negotiations and discussions, with whether it’s ISPs, whether it’s with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or whatever, are also a component part of that and are more likely to achieve the instant response that sometimes the law, when it’s pursued, is extremely tardy and effectively, what we need to do is, to understand that as the industry is changing and evolving, at the pace that it is, the law is actually a very slow instrument as a response, and whilst in any shape or form I’m not undermining the importance and the strength and value of the law, at the speed this industry moves and evolves, it may actually be quite a slow way and an ineffective way at dealing with abuse."

Eh? The moderator, Baroness Howe (for it was she), was keen to find out the answer to my question: "Surely, there must be some work going on, at least, in the background about really getting an international agreement on the basics of what is acceptable and what isn’t?"

Woodward: "Your question about wider international agreements; the fact of the matter is, they’re very hard to bring about quickly and they’re very hard to bring about, not least, because countries, as you know, start with different cultural starting points, for example, there are some who would believe that what you or I, or I suggest, anybody else in this room would regard as obscene material, pornographic representations of children, there are those around the world who don’t entirely share the view, that some of that material is as obscene and should be illegal, as we do, and, therefore, the nuances of that debate are extremely difficult, but that doesn’t mean to say, I think, that we aren’t achieving a consensus."

[etc etc]

"…As a principle, I have absolutely no doubt that self-regulation is more likely to work than regulation, because if those who are controlling the industry share the same ambitions, moral ambitions, as those of us who are consuming that industry, the speed with which they can move is lightening. The speed with which the heavy hand of States and directives and commissions move is lethargic, at best, and, therefore, self-regulation, it seems to me, in this fast moving digital converging world, is actually to be desired, because actually it’s more likely to be effective because of the speed with which it’s changing, so in a sense, I’m arguing that those who understand it, are most likely to achieve the outcomes that we want."

Baroness Howe: "Yeah. But can I just press you a little bit further on that? What I really want to know, is how high on the agenda, which is huge, that you’re coping with at the moment, is this bit of it, which is moving in all the directions that you’ve discussed in the House."

Shaun Woodward MP: "I don’t think we separate out this bit from any other bit, because, actually, I think what’s emerging and it’s certainly emerging in the Chancellor’s mind, is the significance and the importance of the creative industries to the UK economy in the 21st Century. When you have an industry, which employs now nearly 2m people, which seven or eight years ago employed 50% fewer than that, you begin to see this is one of the great growth engines for the success of this country and the future and, therefore, the stifling of that growth, both in terms of economic and moral reasons, is something that needs to be seriously addressed. So to answer your question, it’s an extremely high priority."

Baroness Howe: "It is a high priority that you’re moving, also, to look for international standards, which would uphold all the things you’re aiming to achieve."

Shaun Woodward MP: "I’ve always said, though, that there’s always a danger when Government and Ministers come in and say, ‘Here is my priority,’ and then they give you six priorities; you can’t have six priorities. Our priority, at the moment, is to regulate and deal with a European Commission that would decimate, in its original form, this industry and all those that it serves. When we’ve completed that task, I will tell you there is a new priority; that is not the same as saying, we’re not engaging at other levels, but it always dismays me when people actually say, ‘Here is my priority,’ and they give you six, because which one is it?"

Baroness Howe: "Well I think we hear what you say, Minister, so I’m not going to press you any further on that one. Thank you very much for your time and putting your case so clearly, the Government’s case so clearly."

Shaun Woodward MP: "Thanks very much indeed, thank you."

There you go - clear as mud!


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