August 22, 2014

Last of the summer whine

I thought David Cameron was supposed to be harmlessly on vacation. Instead, he's (again) busy protecting the innocent public from the evil stuff out there on the Internet. His latest idea is to rate online music videos to bring them into line with content bought offline. I guess I get it: music videos aren't porn, so they won't necessarily be stopped by the porn filters that apparently hardly anyone is enabling, so they need to be reined in separately. Beginning in October, YouTube, Vevo, and the British Board of Film Classification, along with the Big Three music companies (Sony, Universal, and Warner Music) will collaborate on a three-month pilot scheme. Judging by quotes the British Phonographic Institute gave the Guardian, the music companies are gung-ho. We will come back to why shortly.

Anti-censorship campaigners generally argue that parents should be the arbiters for their children and that what they need is better tools and information. So on the face of it, that's what the government is suggesting. There are known problems with the BBFC system, even for movies, where ratings are mandatory: submissions are expensive, and must be sought separately for public screening and home video distribution. Ratings do provide parents with, if not information, an easy rule to apply that kids can understand. Ratings are also, of course, information that teens exploit themselves. An "18" rating will be a target for younger teens, just like R-rated movies (restricted to over-17s) in the US.

But online ratings systems only work if the world's millions of content producers are willing to rate their content. Previous efforts, such as 2002's ICRA scheme failed because most people won't bother.

The people who will, however, are the big rights holders, partly because they represent large targets for governments wanting to crack down, but mostly because they can afford the expense of getting things rated - and they know that independent and amateur competitors can't. So the big downside to the ratings scheme is that it presents a route by which independent competition can be eliminated. The big losers are likely to be teens seeking a wider audience for the videos they make with and for each other.

What Britain really needs is the music video equivalent of the US's Movie Mom, whose film reviews are deliberately designed to help parents understand what they might find objectionable or thought-provoking for their kids.

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Elsewhere, there has been discussion of the General Medical Council, which is considering applying tougher sanctions to doctors who have made mistakes and forcing them to apologize.

Medical omerta seems to transcend national cultures. In the US, fear of litigation keeps many medical practitioners from ever coming out to patients and openly claiming responsibility. In the UK, the closed-wagon culture seems to have grown up with the National Health Service based on the notions that doctors are far too busy to have time for explanations and in any case the "simple" people (and, my God, women!) they treated didn't have the education necessary to understand anyway. So requiring doctors - and still more, judging from the stories of egregious medical cover-ups that regularly appear in the pages of Private Eye, hospitals - to *explain* what happened seems long overdue.

But forcing them to apologize?

First of all, as any cursory glance through your own experience and SorryWatch will tell you, a forced apology is no apology at all. I remember at eight, being forced to apologize to the school vice-principal for something she had misheard, despite my protestations that what she was upset about was not what I had actually said. I had to kiss her disgusting powdered cheek and smell her perfume, and what that taught me was not to be more polite, or at least careful, in future but to avoid women in heavy makeup at all costs. Probably everyone has a memory like that, and whether or not you were guilty of the infraction, being forced to apologize for it changes nothing. You go off resentful, and the apological recipient still feels aggrieved because they know it was all just for show: apology theater.

In medical cases, even a truly heartfelt apology can't be very satisfying. The speaker's clear suffering from apocalyptic guilt in no way lessens the likelihood that a statement like "I'm sorry I accidentally cut off the wrong leg" will provoke a response like, "Great. I'm glad *you* feel better. Now, how are you going to get me to work every day?"

Besides the obvious compensation for damage to their lives (if it's even possible), what people want when bad things happen, especially when they are part of a persistent pattern, is to know that the behavior is going to *change*, and permanently. "We know we did this terrible thing to you, and as a result we have put in this system/adopted this practice/fired this doctor/spearheaded this research to ensure that it will not happen again" and we would like to invite you to come see what we've done" is better recompense than any apology. Because we all know where, in the end, apologies come from: the PR department. And then everyone but the damaged person goes on as if nothing has happened.


Wendy M. Grossman Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted throughout the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.