04 January 2009

The real stupidity of Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham has been given such a bashing over his idiotic comments a week ago about how the internet should be censored that I felt no need to chime in with a "me too".   Particular derision greeted his claim that he was not against free speech. But the misunderstanding about what the internet is worth elaborating.

He said he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.   The only feasible way to do that is to have a whitelist-based filter that allows "safe" sites to be viewed.  That's quite doable - I do it myself for my children, using squidGuard.  It's very much better done at the home end than the ISP, because that way my 9-year-old can ask for a site that he's heard about, and I can add it to the whitelist, but the filtering can be done "in the cloud" if you can't be bothered to learn how to use a computer.  Nonetheless, the filter means that essentially, the boys do not have internet access - only this ersatz "pages from ceefax" version, and with the 9-year-old now 10, the time is approaching that it will have to be turned off for him. 

The internet is dynamic.  It changes year by year, very significantly.  That is what has made it what it is.  It is able to do this only because of the fact that, on the internet, anything goes.  That's not an incidental feature of the network, it's what made it what it is.  Anything goes in terms of technology (the end-to-end principle), and in terms of content (creating a web page without getting it approved beforehand by the BBFC).

You can make a copy of many of the most useful features of the internet at a given point in time, without that freedom.  But what you have is frozen, dead.  As the internet moves on, it can't keep up.  It's like creating a command economy: when you start you have prices, traces of the market that used to exist.  You can plan your economy based on those prices (with whatever adjustments you think will improve things).   But where the market would have changed, you can't see those changes.  Over time, your dead market prices will become less and less appropriate to reality.

If anything-goes makes the internet unsuitable for children (and a reasonable person might well consider that it does), the only possible course of action is to stop children from using the internet.  Let them revive Prestel or Compuserve for them - that would be more useful than the "child-safe" internet Burnham somehow envisages.

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