ELSPA vs BBFC

The daggers are out in a very public spat between the organisation that lobbies on behalf of the UK

The post-Byron review games industry is getting itself very worked up about regulatory frameworks.

Having commissioned the ‘Children and new technology’ review with the hope that it might provide some critical mandate for greater control of bad-technology - the surprise in government was matched only by its disappointment when Dr Tanya Byron turned in her findings.

Balanced, measured and refreshingly free from hysteria - Byron’s report affirmed many of the positive outcomes of playing videogames and singularly failed to provide the anti-games lobby with any serious ammunition. It’s strange then, that the industry has failed to seize on it as anything other than an opportunity to fight the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Whilst Dr Byron considered many of the potential risks to children and presented a number of measures to increase protection, in the thorny issue of regulation her findings were unfortunately less conclusive.

To recap, then: BBFC, media ratings body funded by submission fees with statutory powers - PEGI, the pan-European body established and funded by the Games industry in order to regulate itself. One can probably already sense where the tensions are going to arise.

Byron called for a collaborative approach between the BBFC and PEGI combined with a period of public consultation. To move beyond the confused system we are currently working with she recommended that the organisations work closely together to devise the best system for moving forward with.

When she made these recommendations her assumption was probably that these two bodies would be able to work together, however on the evidence of recent exchanges it seems she would have had more luck organising a McCartney-Mills reconciliation.

At a recent Westminster Media Forum examining the computer games industry, regulatory framework issues was always going to be high on the agenda, although no-one expected it to feature in the keynote quite as explicitly as it did.

Having limited time available, Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) director Paul Jackson used his opening keynote to make the case for PEGI and formally trash the BBFC in surprisingly emotive and unequivocal language. Jackson characterised this moment as, ‘the most biggest legislative challenge ever faced by the industry’ - that PEGI was the ‘gold standard’ and the ‘solution for today, and the solution for tomorrow’. Perhaps most explicitly, he directly accused the BBFC of simply not having the expertise to classify games. Such provocative fighting talk so early in the proceedings was a little unexpected, so it was disappointing that having drawn a circle in the dirt Jackson then had to put his shirt back on and leave for other business. The BBFC representatives sat on the back row, shaking their heads at this extraordinary attack. For ELSPA certainly, that is already not about how to best collaborate - but about aggressive lobbying to select PEGI as the existing system of choice.

In the following panel discussion, Paul Johnson, head of policy for the BBFC was afforded the right to reply - which he took with enthusiasm and delivered a robust defense. He addressed the reasons why the industry favored PEGI, ‘Industries do tend to like regulatory systems that they own and control’, before going to on vehemently reject ELSPA’s criticisms.

This continued for some time, with Times Journalist / ELSPA PR advisor Tim Wapshott describing the notion of the BBFC not ‘crying wolf’ by sometimes rating games lower than they are in Europe as ‘absurd’. Wapshott explained that this might mean an adult might be playing an adult game online with a child, clearly at situation which would be unacceptable and a wholly reasonable point. To emphasise his point, he later went on to claim that,”..at any one time there are fifty-thousand paedophiles on the internet..” Whilst not venturing to suggest how this number was obtained, everyone agreed that it was a jolly dramatic moment.

The key points were neatly rounded up by industry elder-statesman Chris Deering. In a presentation which was somehow both soulfully optimistic and apocalyptically jaded, he celebrated the artistic achievement of the industry whilst drawing everyones attention to the fact that the biggest challenge here is in the online space. If regulating the availability of static disc-based media is a huge challenge, how can either organisation possibly hope to control networked gameplay? It is of course, the same problem facing the entire online entertainment space. The problem of classification is but the beginning, the real challenge is how to practically restrict access.

Or perhaps not… On this showing the real challenge is apparently even getting the stakeholders in the regulatory discussion to talk to each other. Johnson announced that the BBFC have been trying to participate in a dialogue but that unfortunately, “ELSPA have instructed their members not to talk to us about Byron at all.”

Witnessing this extraordinary exchange, one couldn’t help but sense that we’re missing something here. Surely there must be a business development agenda here that’s being left unspoken? There must be some behind the scenes conflict that is precipitating this public showdown? Either way, this kind of display is hugely unhelpful for the industry moving forwards. The sorry affair put me in the disorientating position of finding myself agreeing with Margaret Hodge MP, who in her statement following the spat called on both parties to act in a ‘grown-up way’ in sorting this out.

Byron Review: Full Text
Byron Review: Executive Summary
BBFC
PEGI

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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