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Inside the government's mad plan to catalog every video on the Internet

The plan is unworkable and troublingly authoritarian, says Myles Jackman. 

Imagine a government scheme to catalogue and classify every single video on the web.

But you don’t need to imagine: that’s the bizarre proposal being put forward by Theresa May’s government in the Digital Economy Bill, which reached committee stage in the Lords this week.

The Digital Economy Bill proposes that online video should be classified just as films are now, and by the same people - the British Board of Film Classification.

According to the BBFC’s annual report for 2015, the board classified 983 films for distribution in the UK, and 1,143 hours of online content for video-on-demand.

To put this in context, hundreds hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. The demand that the BBFC should be able to make a judgment on the vast amount of video uploaded to a vast range of sites across the world is extremely ambitious.

As David Austin of the BBFC tactfully put it in a letter to Joanna Shields, the minister for Internet Safety and Security, “the internet is constantly evolving and inevitably any initiative in this area needs to be multi-faceted and flexible.” Well quite.

How could this possibly work? Classification can’t simply be left to an algorithm, so we’re left with the prospect of a huge recruitment drive for people to sit around all day and decide what is and isn’t acceptable, as suggested by Open Rights Group New Government Jobs spoof adverts.

But let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt and suppose that this plan has been fully, scalably costed, and thousands of people across the country will be paid to watch and classify millions of hours of video and decide who’s allowed to watch it.

The next step is placing age verification on sites.

The bill states “A person must not make pornographic material available on the internet on a  commercial basis to persons in the United Kingdom except in a way that  secures that, at any given time, the material is not normally accessible by  persons under the age of 18.”

“Commercial basis” here includes free-to-access sites, and “pornographic material” is a phrase that covers a multitude of sins, from R18 content (of the type not to be supplied “other than in a licensed sex shop”) to video of which it is “reasonable to assume from its nature that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal.”

There is no indication of how age verification will work. A basic option would be through credit cards but this would expose Internet users to greater risk of credit card fraud - nor would it take much for a young person to ‘borrow’ an adult’s card for the purpose of identification. Other proposals could mean that porn sites are creating databases of what sites are viewed by whom - essentially surveillance, with the potential added risk of accidental public disclosure.

Given the trail of leaks of personal data in the last few years, such as the Ashley Madison hack, is anyone comfortable with the idea of a record of every risque but legal site they have visited?

Given these hacks, you would think that the Bill would at least require that Internet users privacy is protected but there are no obligations to do this.

How can the British government impose age verification on the porn industry, especially as the majority of porn sites are based outside the UK? This was not adequately thought about in the first draft of the Bill but since an amendment has been added to give the BBFC the power to tell Internet Service providers to block sites that don’t comply.

So the BBFC could be in charge of a censorship regime overseeing the blocking of thousands of websites, whose content is perfectly legal, without a court order. Once this is in place to censor porn sites, how else could it be used?

Editor's Note: On 7 February, the DCMS provided the following response: "Government has not suggested cataloguing or classifying every video on the internet. Age verification proposals are aimed at protecting children by making sure the same rules and safeguards that exist in the physical world also apply online. We are working with the BBFC to make sure there are appropriate data protection mechanisms included in age verification technology deemed suitable for this purpose."

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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