Cameron vs the ‘Wild West’ web

Plans to restrict access to online music videos set a dangerous precedent.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Free Speech

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From October, online music videos accessed from the UK will be classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in order to protect children from ‘graphic content’. UK prime minister David Cameron announced the pilot scheme in a speech to the ‘wellbeing’ lobby group, Relationships Alliance, last Monday. He claimed the classifications on websites like YouTube and Vevo were necessary because ‘helping families with children and parenting shouldn’t stop at childbirth… bringing up children in an internet age, you are endlessly worried about what they are going to find online. So we’ve taken a big stand on protecting our children.’ The move is part of the Conservative Party’s attempt to brand itself the ‘family-friendly’ party ahead of next year’s General Election.

In an interview with the BBC on the same day as the announcement, Cameron said ‘we can’t go on having the government making decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family’. He continued: ‘As for my own children, I am sure there are times when they have been disappointed because they haven’t been able to do something or see something. But that is part of what being a parent is about – being able to deploy the use of the word “No”.’ On this point, at least, Cameron is correct: it is the responsibility of parents to decide what their children see online. But as much as Cameron wants to dress up his plans to regulate the internet as ‘helping’ parents, he is in fact intruding on the exercise of parental authority, acting in loco parentis to decide what children can and can’t watch.

In the speech, Cameron also boasted about his government’s creepy new opt-out porn filter. The filter requires UK citizens to seek permission from their internet service provider before they look at anything saucy online. He said: ‘We’re making family-friendly filters the default setting for all new online customers, and we’re forcing existing customers to make an active choice about whether to install them.’ He neglected to mention the unpopularity of the policy, with only one-in-seven households opting to keep it. This one-seventh presumably made up of prudes, the internet-illiterate and those too embarrassed to call up to get it switched off. Seemingly oblivious to the inherent irony, he also stated the need to do away with ‘excessive bureaucracy’ that is interfering in family life.

Despite Cameron’s grandstanding about making a ‘big stand’, his plan is nothing of the sort. YouTube is already one of the most sanitised places on the internet. On an internet awash with hardcore pornography, images of dead Gazan children and videos of ISIS beheadings, YouTube is about the tamest thing going. Even from the perspective of a prig, the music-video problem is imagined. YouTube is almost devoid of edgy content because of its strict guidelines for users who upload videos, which ban everything from explicit sexual content to hate speech and videos of ‘someone getting hurt, attacked, or humiliated’. As for racy music videos, users wishing to see videos featuring partial nudity, like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, are asked to sign in to confirm their age. There is, however, a lot of coarse language on YouTube, mostly in the form of amateur profanity-laden rants uploaded by YouTube users. But, under the new scheme, these will remain unclassified, further demonstrating the tokenism of the policy.

As pathetic as this most recent move is, it can be seen as a softening up for more regulation in the future. As Cameron told the Relationship Alliance: ‘We shouldn’t cede the internet as some sort of lawless space where the normal rules of life shouldn’t apply.’ Of course, this vision of the internet as the Wild West is a fantasy. In the UK, everything that goes on online is done under the watchful eye of the state, with a police spokesman revealing last month that coppers are spending more than half of their time investigating online incidents.

Despite the tokenism of the policy, it may well have immediate consequences for artistic expression. As has been well documented by filmmakers like Ken Loach, film studios routinely cut films on the advice of the BBFC (formerly the British Board of Film Censorship) to attain a lower age certificate for their films. This means the versions of films we see at the cinema have often been bowdlerised to please the censors. Music videos are perhaps the most widely consumed form of video art, and, as they have migrated online, music-video directors have been given more freedom to realise a sometimes controversial vision. They will undoubtedly suffer, as feature filmmakers have, from now being beholden to a regulatory body. While YouTube already monitors its own content, videos too edgy for it can easily be found on other sites. But, if this ‘pilot scheme’ is deemed a success, music-video classification will likely be rolled out to other parts of the internet and eventually be given statutory backing. The idea of rating online music videos, on a website that already rates music videos, reflects Cameron’s pernicious and cavalier approach to regulating content online. Age ratings and porn filters may only be the beginning.

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Topics Free Speech


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