Page last updated at 15:28 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Website age ratings 'an option'

Boy at a computer
Andy Burnham says people need help navigating the internet

Film-style age ratings could be applied to websites to protect children from harmful and offensive material, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has said.

Mr Burnham said the government was looking at a number of possible new internet safeguards.

He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed.

He also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Mr Burnham, a father of three young children, believes internet service providers should offer child-friendly web access.

'Clearer signposting'

He told the BBC: "The internet is becoming a more and more pervasive entity in all our lives and yet the content standards online are not as clear as we've all been used in traditional media.

"I think we do need to have a debate now about clearer signposting and labelling online because it can be quite a confusing world, particularly for parents who are trying to ensure their children are only accessing appropriate stuff."

Mr Burnham's plans are likely to anger those who advocate the freedom of the worldwide web.

He insisted he was not trying to curb free speech, but wanted to protect the public from "unacceptable" material.

Culture Secretary Andy Burnham says websites need 'clearer labelling and sign-posting'

"It's not about banning or stopping people having that freedom of expression," he said. "It's simply about clearer signposting, more information, so people know where they're working."

John Carr, secretary of the UK Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety, said other countries were looking at similar measures.

"Nobody would deny there are enormous practical problems," he told the BBC.

"There isn't a body, an obvious body, that could do this type of classification here in the UK at the moment, but it's definitely an aspiration that many governments across the world are now reaching to."

Concerns over children's safety on the internet have already led to calls from the NSPCC for computer manufacturers and retailers to install security to stop children finding violent or sexual content.

A poll carried out by the children's charity in October suggested three out of four children had been disturbed by images they had seen on the internet.

In July this year, the Commons culture, media and sport select committee criticised video-sharing website YouTube, saying it needed to do more to vet its content.

At the time, Google, the firm which owns YouTube, stressed the site had strict rules and a system that allowed users to report inappropriate content.

This suggestion has obviously been made by somebody who knows nothing about how the internet works
Brendan, Birmingham, UK

Prominent warnings

Diana Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, told the BBC News website she welcomed Mr Burnham's suggestions, but there were issues around how they would work.

"It's one thing to have a political commitment, but it's much harder to actually enforce it," she said. "We want these ideas to have teeth.

"And these mechanisms on their own aren't enough. They've got to be combined with greater parental awareness. Most parents have no clue what their children are up to online."

She said warnings about content, such as on social networking websites, must be displayed more prominently.

"What I think is missing from these proposals is that it's not just about what sites children might see, it's about who they might meet online," she added.

A spokesman for internet service provider BT said the company would need to see the details of Mr Burnham's plan before making any further comment.

In Saturday's wide-ranging newspaper interview, Mr Burnham also suggested he would allocate money raised from the BBC's commercial activities to fund other broadcasters, such as Channel Four.

On the future of the licence fee, he said: "Top-slicing the licence fee [to fund other broadcasters] is an option that is going to have to remain on the table."

But he added: ''I have to say it is not the option that I instinctively reach for first. I think there are other avenues to be explored."

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