U.K. ISP Tibboh has just done something rather surprising: It's partnered with the British Board of Film Classification to, basically, age-proof the Internet. It's for "safety" of course, but does Google really merit a "12" rating?
The BBFC, like the MPAA, is responsible for those big, splashy age rating screens that pop up at the start of movies in the theater or on your DVDs at home. In the U.K. the ratings range from U, for universal, through PG for parental guidance (Bambi is a PG) and then films that are suitable for 12-, 15- and 18-year-olds and above.
Now Tibboh has partnered with this independent body (the first time an ISP has done so) to age-rate the Internet. And yes, this is apparently technically possible—Tibboh says its servers have crawled around 3 billion Web pages so far and rated them according to the BBFC's classifications. This process is largely automatic, using a bunch of pre-existing services like Netsweeper, but the upshot is pretty simple: Families can pay for group access to the Net via Tibboh and then choose to limit the kind of services that their kids can access over the big, bad Interwolf. It's novel, it uses a familiar and, to a degree, "trusted" censorship brand, and it taps into the current social discomfort over the sort of content the Internet is delivering to your door, at ever higher speeds.
But here's the thing: Tibboh's age-assessment algorithm mix has resulted in search engines like Google and Bing getting a "12" rating. On one level, this is understandable—you can type any old thing into Google, and discover the delights of fetishistic whatnot, leather-beclad thingumies and how to snort the latest whoofledust drug. That does of course presume prior knowledge, or the equivalent of kids looking up rude words in the big dictionaries at school, but Google does, of course, also serve up search results that may surprise when looking for even the most innocent of words. Over-protective parents will approve of this, no doubt, and it is, certainly, one model for the way the Internet may get increasingly "censored" in the future.
But what about the notion that barring your 11-year-old access to a search engine is hilariously Victorian? Kids, obviously, are exposed to Net technology in ways we never were growing up—the old joke about the neighbor kid who knows how to program your VCR has had a significant upgrade since the 1980s. And acting supposedly in their interests for their own protection is all very well, but what about using Google to help them research their homework, and letting them understand that the world is a complex, messy place?
Even if you're happy with this kind of strict parental control, the notion that a body closely associated with the entertainment industry is happily letting its controls be used to somewhat arbitrarily censor the Internet, which is a body for social connection, news breaking, fact research, creativity, learning, fun and, yes, entertainment, is a little creepy no? Or perhaps not. As the early analysis of the newly released draft form of the ACTA global copyright legislation shows, the entertainment industry is desperately keen to get its legal stranglehold around the Intertubes, and will lobby for laws that violate national precedents while simultaneously quashing individual freedoms and the capacity for the Net to drive the world's innovation engines.