MPs declare their ignorance on the web

…and compare unlicensed video games to child porn (see below.)

MPs declare their ignorance on the web

The times, they may be changing on the internet, but if our Parliament has anything to do with it, that change is unlikely to be for the better. The problem is that far too many MPs not only don’t get it when it comes to the net, they actively bask in their ignorance of new technology.

Two outwardly unconnected stories show how. This week, the stiff-collar brigade were out in force, exerting pressure on MP’s to tone down their blogs. The authorities have taken exception to some of the language used which, they feel, breaches Parliamentary etiquette.

So Paul Flynn MP has been asked to remove comments about fellow MPs Peter Hain and Lembit Opik. He compared Hain to a Star Trek character “who liquefies at the end of each day and sleeps in a bucket to emerge in another chosen shape the following morning”. Mr Opik is merely a “clown” or a “turkey”.

Since Mr Flynn failed to comply, the authorities have removed a portion of his communications allowance, and he is now contributing £250 a year towards his site out of his own pocket. He said: “Imagine how boring it would be if the only thing you could say about other MPs were nice things. What the hell is the point of that?”

Meanwhile, last week’s Westminster Hall Debate on the Report on Harmful Content on the Internet, released earlier this year by the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport was chock-full of parliamentary courtesy.

Middle-aged speaker after middle-aged dinosaur lumbered up to make the same quaintly prehistoric self-deprecating joke about their technological incompetence and how little experience they had of the internet or computer gaming.

Debate here. In it, MPs rush to outdo one another on a variety of grounds, from how many times they can shoehorn their family into the discussion to their proud lack of knowledge on a variety of issues.

Some excerpts follow:

Edward Vaizey (Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

May I make a point to my hon. Friend? In his response to Keith Vaz, he has implied that “Kaboom” is somehow a legitimate video game that breaches the boundaries of taste, but it is not. It was created by an individual in his bedroom. To say that we should ban “Kaboom” is, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, slightly missing the point.”Kaboom” is not subject to any legal constraints. It cannot be submitted to a regulator to be classified, because it is made by an individual, effectively illegally, outside the mainstream, just as violent pornographic films or child abuse photographs are. It is not at all part of the mainstream video games industry.

I didn’t realise DIY coding was “effectively illegal.” Not to mention being the equivalent of child porn. OH NOES!

Janet Anderson (Rossendale & Darwen, Labour)

As he pointed out, when we visited YouTube, we were concerned to find that it did not readily monitor everything that was posted, but relied on users to report inappropriate material to it. We state in our report our concern that:

“It is not standard practice for staff employed by social networking sites or video-sharing sites to preview content before it can be viewed by consumers.”

As in the case of YouTube, some of them

“do not even undertake routine review of material uploaded, claiming that the volumes involved make it impractical.”

As stated on their fact sheet, ten hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute. I can’t help but wonder just what our MP would suggest as a review process.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour)
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee. I apologise—I have not come forearmed with a comprehensive list of quangos and recent establishments.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)
Why not?

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour)
Life is too short.


John Hayes (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; South Holland & The Deepings, Conservative)

There are some arguments that I hope we will not hear in the winding-up speeches. I do not think that we will hear them from my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey, who has a distinguished history on this subject. He looks at such matters in considerable detail and takes his responsibility seriously. He is a prince among shadow Ministers, if I might put it that way. Nevertheless, I hope that we will not hear the tired old argument about freedom. Civilised life is characterised not by our capacity to do as we will, which, by the way, we share with the apes, but by our ability to choose to do what we should. That is what civilises us, and trailing the old argument about liberty will not be not helpful to the debate.

The second argument that we might hear from the Minister is about information, as though exposure to more and more data is of itself a good thing. Children are now exposed to all kinds of stimuli, influences and information to which previous generations of young people were not.

I think that says it all really.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)

Mr. Hayes does not have to apologise for not being an expert. He is an expert, because he is a parent. He is rightly concerned about the effects, harmful or otherwise, of video games on his children. The issue began as an elitist one—not many Members of the House were concerned about it—but, with the spread of video games, more and more people are voicing worries.

There are two main problems with this reasoning. The first is that any attempt to filter internet content or censor video games will likely have an impact felt much more widely than children alone. One obvious possibility would be that, as video game restrictions grow more strict, companies will find themselves toning down their content in order to meet a desired criteria. The second is that any such policy would require technology in order to be implemented; as such, it is helpful to put it mildly to have at least a basic understanding of what they technology can and cannot do. Simply being a parent does not make one an expert on what is and is not possible technologically.

Furthermore, much of the discussion here centred around removing content altogether – not simply preventing children from accessing it.

Madeleine Moon (PPS (Rt Hon Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Bridgend, Labour)

My hon. Friend Mrs. James came to me about accessing someone on Facebook whom she could talk to. One of her constituents had come to her following the death of her baby. She had gone on to Facebook looking for a support group, which the social networking sites are excellent at providing. She was extremely distressed when she came across a group on dead babies, which had posted comments such as, “Dead babies make me laugh” and, “I like licking chocolate off dead babies.” Despite a complaint being made, that group still exists.

Here, our MP falls into the classic trap of assuming that if something “distresses” you, you therefore have the right to silence it. (I find the views of Moon and her allies rather distressing, for example…) Moon again:

What sort of society do we want? What sort of society are we promulgating? I would welcome the censorship of that online game. We must set limits and boundaries when we bring up our children. As a society, we set limits and boundaries on individual behaviour. We must start setting limits and boundaries in the online world and in cyberspace. If we do not, we will give our youngsters access to information and standards that, in fact, destroy the limits and values we set in the real world. As we know, sometimes our young people spend more time interacting in the online, unreal world than they do in the real world.

See above.

Edward Vaizey (Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

On internet regulation, my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes departs just as I concede to his superior wisdom and his constraints on freedom. It is absurd to say that we must not regulate the internet. It is utterly ridiculous to me. These large, multinational companies provide internet services that go directly into people’s homes. Their work is not that different from that of broadcasters. The internet is a unique and new technology in its ability to allow the consumer to put up content and create a bespoke service for themselves. However, it is absurd to say that the Government should have no role, when this is being piped into our homes.

This is an example of the politicians’ ignorance of the technology being discussed. A broadcaster has direct control over what is and is not broadcast. An ISP deals with content created and distributed by others. Would we blame the Royal Mail for the distribution of physical photos of child abuse?

Furthermore, I can only assume the panel did not look at the example of internet censorship in China (dubbed the “Great Firewall of China” by some.) While much content is blocked, there are enough means of avoiding the block – proxy servers, VPN, Tor – that it is bypassed frequently.

Edward Vaizey (Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bath about self-regulation being the best way forward where effective. I also counsel caution, because the internet is in part one big conversation. The trouble is that we now hear conversations that we could easily have avoided a few years ago. Mrs. Moon recounted some of the revolting comments that she has chanced upon on the internet, particularly about dead babies and the prevalence of suicide in Wales. Those are put there by vile people who would have such conversations in the pub regardless. The trouble with the internet is that those pub conversations are now on our computer screens.

I can only assume from this quote that some miscreant took the opportunity to break into Mr. Vaizey’s home, take him hostage and forced fed him Encyclopedia Dramatica. Or, alternatively, that he is unaware of the “close” button which has become so popular as of late. Vaizey goes on to say:

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Those organisations say, “We are the pipes, and we cannot regulate the content that passes through those pipes.” They say that it would be like asking Royal Mail to check the contents of every envelope. Well, it is not. If, for example, I decide to send by direct mail a letter to every household with “Open this envelope for really hardcore pornography” written on it, hon. Members and the Government would be perfectly within their rights to say to Royal Mail, “Do you mind intercepting this material and ensuring that it is not posted to every household?” It is perfectly possible to use search engines to track down unacceptable internet sites. As has been said, we are not talking about checking every 12 hours of video content uploaded on to YouTube. We are talking about using common sense to ensure that the worst material is targeted and taken down.

The mind boggles.

The current policy of relying on user notifications was attacked throughout the panel. While Vaizey did not comment at the time, it seems from this quote that he feels that system is inadequate. It is unclear what, other than “checking every 12 hours of video content,” he would suggest.

More importantly, he inexplicably compares choosing to visit websites hosting “distressing” content with having said content sent to you uninvited. He continues:

I want to make a number of general remarks about how we promote internet safety, particularly for children. All of us have talked about our children and grandchildren. I do not want to be left out of that debate, so I can now inform the Chamber that I, too, have children.

This is, of course, a reasonable approach to take, particularly in light of the Families and Technology Act 2004, which clearly states that those politicians who have managed to successfully breed are to be allocated an additional 10% of a vote for each time they drag a reference to said spawn into a debate.

Vaizey again:

As I said, CEOP is a meaningless phrase. I only understand it because it falls into my brief. This may sound trite, but why can we not start giving organisations names that people understand, such as the internet police or other similar phrases? We need normal language. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is a name that has clearly been written by a lawyer. It is full of long words, and is utterly meaningless. It does not tell us what CEOP actually does.

It seems technology is not the only area in which Vaizey faces difficulties. Personally, the name CEOP seems fairly self-explanatory – it deals with the protection of children from online exploitation. Perhaps it was the “CEO” part that threw him.

Barbara Follett (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Culture; Minister for the East of England), Department for Culture, Media & Sport; Stevenage, Labour)

I am very much in favour of video games. Any hon. Members who have played the new brain-training games will know that they are extremely helpful to a woman who is well past middle life. My grandchildren are very glad that I have improved my brain level.

Edward Vaizey (Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport; Wantage, Conservative)
If only other Ministers—

John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I loled.


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