Digital pioneer Stef Lewandowski challenges Secretary of State for Culture Andy Burnham’s plans for supervising the Web.

How would you feel if everything you tried to access on the internet were filtered for “unacceptable content” by government censors?

That’s a possibility Andy Burnham, secretary of state for culture has proposed this week.

He’s concerned about the fact that he can’t leave his kids for two hours alone on the home computer without fear that they will be exposed to inappropriate content. The problem is that the internet doesn’t take into account the user’s age when they access it and doesn’t have a 9pm watershed.

How can a dad trust that if he lets his ten-year-old daughter use the internet for a while unsupervised that she won’t accidentally click on something that’s not meant for her, be exposed to something frightening, violent or sexually explicit and suffer nightmares for weeks afterwards? Or even, how can he trust that if he gives his 14-year-old son a free email account that he won’t be inundated with sexually explicit spam email?

The answer is that parents and guardians of kids just can’t. There is no internet-wide, internationally agreed method for parents to filter out what is, and isn’t, appropriate (in their view) for their kids.

So Mr Burnham commissioned an excellent report into these issues by clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron who neatly summarises the problem: “Many parents seem to believe that when their child is online it is similar to them watching television ... in fact it is more like opening the front door and letting your child go outside to play, unsupervised.”

So what’s to be done?

Mr Burnham is currently considering a couple of options that have set bloggers raging: How about websites having cinema-style age ratings like they do for films? Or how about forcing the internet service providers, like BT and Virgin Media, to filter out sites that host ‘inappropriate’ content? Neither of these ideas will work, and here’s why:

There are currently one trillion web addresses in Google’s index of the web. But some estimate that the size of the ‘invisible web’ – the password protected pages, the things that aren’t linked to anywhere – is about ten times that size, so let’s estimate that there are 100 trillion web addresses out there (strictly, it’s infinite but that’s another story).

If you or I were to attempt to go through each of these sites by hand and decide whether they are appropriate or inappropriate for our kids, one page every second, it would take over 30 million years! Or put another way, you could have 30 million people employed to do the job.

That’s just the web. People often conflate the words ‘web’ and ‘internet’, but there are a huge number of services that use the internet that don’t appear as ‘web sites’. A big one, that’s hugely popular with kids is MSN – it’s like text messaging on your phone, but quicker, more fun and free. Are we going to have some kind of system monitoring every message that gets sent for ‘inappropriate content’ too?

Obviously this is an impossible task to be done by hand, so the government would need some sophisticated software to do it. The trouble is that computers find it very difficult to analyse a piece of text or an image and decide if it’s ‘bad’ or ‘good’ depending on some criteria. The web is very different to the world of film (or games). Once you’ve released your film, that’s it – it’s done and can be quite easily given an age rating. But websites change from day to day or are even so dynamic that pages don’t exist until requested. One minute a site could just have pictures of kittens on it, the next someone could upload some legal, but adult content. How would you rate a photo-sharing site like Flickr where around 5million images are uploaded every day, a handful of which might be ‘inappropriate’? Over 18 only? That would make hundreds of thousands of blog posts suddenly image-free for the filtered user because bloggers tend to use Flickr images to illustrate their points.

And how are we to legislate for websites that are produced or hosted outside the UK?

And furthermore, who decides what content should or should not be permissible to be viewed?

Earlier this year Birmingham City Council’s internet filter ‘Bluecoat’ amusingly barred employees from accessing prominent atheist Richard Dawkins’s blog because it contained “occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism”, and in fact my own blog was blocked to council employees for some reason too.

If we were to roll out something along the lines of what the Australian government is attempting this year, where every internet connection in the country is filtered with a system like this, we would see more of these kinds of ‘false positives’ occurring. And a flurry of lawsuits from legitimate but banned website owners would follow.

But surely it is ultimately the responsibility of the parent to help their kids navigate the dangers of the online world? The government putting out the message that they’ve got the kids protected with an electronic system will just mean more kids will be left in front of computers for hours at a time, and if you’ve ever done any work with young people you know just how easy they find it to get around any filtering system.

What alarmed me the most, though is this comment from the interview with Mr Burnham in one newspaper: “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical.”

I disagree entirely. Once something is on the internet it is potentially always accessible, because it can be copied by anyone. Wish-thinking that this is not the case does not help. If you take some content down from one site, it will just reappear elsewhere.

Put simply, rating websites and filtering internet connections are unworkable ideas, and the Byron review draws the same conclusions, so it is confusing to see them even being discussed.

Here’s an alternative suggestion. One of Mr Burnham’s predecessors made free museum access for all a reality. So how about something of similar ambition for the web?

This year, the UK e-commerce market grew a whopping 28 per cent and is set to continue growing in 2009. The digital media industry could prove to be a big success story in a time of recession.

How about free WI-FI access in every UK city? Or upgrading our national broadband network to the level that Korea enjoys?

Either of these ideas would be by far a more constructive project and lead to marked benefits to the UK digital economy and are precisely the kind of ambitious projects that only Mr Burnham is positioned to undertake.

In the mean-time the solution to the problem of kids and the internet is simple. Parents need to get familiar with the technology themselves so they can help their kids navigate the digital world. That’s where the government can help – by educating parents and breaking down the generational digital divide.

But some quick advice to parents. You should make sure the computer is in the living room so you can see the screen (not in the child’s room) and you should not leave your kids browsing the web unsupervised. You could also install something like NetNanny for younger kids, try out KidZui for kid-friendly content and install the Glubble kid-safe browser. None of which requires any government spending.

Stef Lewandowski is CEO of 3form, the award-winning Birmingham digital media ideas lab, and founder of Odadeo – the social networking toolbox for dads.