Sunday, August 24, 2008

Censorship online: who needs evidence?

A new UK parliamentary report says the internet must be regulated to protect children - even though there's no proof they are being harmed.

The internet is made up of hardcore pornography, videos of fighting, bullying, rape and websites that glorify extreme diets, selfharm, and suicide. Or at least that's the impression you could easily be left with after reading an alarm-ridden report just published by a UK parliamentary committee. And that means further support for the idea of controls on what we can and cannot view, all in the name of protecting children.

Harmful Content on the Internet and in Video Games , a report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee was published last Thursday. The committee's report draws on an earlier report for the UK government authored by popular clinical psychologist, TV pundit and presenter Dr Tanya Byron, published in March. The Byron Report concluded that `[C]hildren and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe'.

In what amounts to a child-centred approach to understanding the impact of technology on children, Byron recommended setting up yet another regulatory body, called the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. The government has already agreed to do this before the end of the year. The council's remit will be to work with internet service providers (ISPs) and industry to place the interests of children at the forefront of how the games industry and myriad website publishers must rate, monitor and, in some cases, censor their content.

The consensus is that parents can no longer be trusted to deal with the various hurdles that our risk-averse society has created. In the absence of parental skills, bodies like the new council will help alert parents to the potential dangers when children happen to stray online without any supervision.

News of all this has caused some protest, but only amongst those who produce games and websites. The booming computer games industry argues that it has already put in place all the necessary checks and balances to regulate games. They insist their own standard, Pan European Games Information (PEGI), is good enough for the job.

On this, Bryon's report fudged the issue. She thought a combination of PEGI and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) ratings would do the job, arguing that both the BBFC and PEGI could put their stickers on the front and on the back respectively on each games' packaging. The select committee's recommendation, on the other hand, is to extend the remit of the BBFC to include computer games.

But regulating the games industry is just one part of the select committee's focus. They also warn that children regularly stray online unsupervised, especially to websites like YouTube and other various social networking websites. What particularly worries the committee is that these websites are full of content uploaded by all kinds of people about any subject of their choosing. And in the case of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, they worry that children are inadvertently putting themselves at risk by posting information about themselves online.

In consequence, fingers are being pointed at website owners including Google (which owns YouTube) because the committee argues that they are not doing enough to protect children from a mass of inappropriate content. The committee believes big service providers like YouTube should be more proactive in reviewing material, more efficient in removing it if it is unsuitable, and better at flagging it up with a label where necessary.

The problem with websites, and the internet in general, is that they are very hard to regulate. Websites like YouTube thrive on massive amounts of content that is constantly being uploaded by thousands of people every day. Google have said that to try to regulate all of this content (some estimate as much as 10 hours worth is uploaded every minute) makes the task of censorship nearly impossible.

As a result, the debate around the select committee report has narrowly focused on who should be regulating who, whilst completely ignoring the major assumption behind this discussion: that the internet is causing children harm. Indeed, no-one seems to be challenging the misconstrued evidence about why children and their parents need help in dealing with the internet's content.

In fact, self-regulation and censorship is already happening. The government-endorsed Internet Watch Foundation, set up in 1996, aims to ensure that all ISPs and mobile operators remove any offensive or illegal content that they might inadvertently host.

The Byron Report and the new select committee report raise the bar of internet regulation. But the central claim that the internet causes children harm is not backed up with any serious evidence. Likewise, the focus on the internet's `dark side' is also unfounded. The obsession with protecting children is opportunist and a convenient means to deflect criticism of the proposed regulation of content; critics are simply told that we must err on the side of caution. The available research offers no conclusive proof either way that the internet is doing irreparable harm to children. As the select committee admits, there is `still no clear evidence of a causal link between activity or behaviour portrayed on-screen and subsequent behaviour by the person who viewed it'.

There is nothing new about using the vulnerable to justify restrictions on what can be viewed, particularly those who are regarded as lacking the maturity or capacity to understand what is being shown (which has always included children and those with special needs, but would once have included women, too). What is new about the select committee report is that it uses the language of risk so as to by-pass the need for evidence of harm or offence; this `you can never be too sure' outlook will always trump the ambiguity of the research to date. The cause of protecting children conveniently makes sense when it is, as the committee says, `based on the probability of risk'. As the committee declares, `incontrovertible evidence of harm is not necessarily required in order to justify a restriction of access to certain types of content in any medium'.

Not only is the new report blase about the lack of evidence to support its conclusion that this new media content can be harmful; the committee cannot even define what is meant by `harmful content': `The definition of what is "harmful" is not hard and fast: for one 10-year-old, a scene will seem very real and disturbing, whereas another will be able apparently to dismiss it or treat it as fantasy.'

But while there is little evidence being presented on how and why the internet is a threat to children, once the spectre of children being at risk is raised, everyone closes ranks. Yet again, the internet provides the perfect prism through which to discuss the culpability of adults as being unfit or ill-equipped to bring up children.

We should be extremely suspicious whenever politicians, campaigners and `experts' play the children card. Almost any kind of restriction can be justified if the young are supposedly at risk. Amidst all this panic, we need to draw the opposite conclusions to the select committee report and demonstrate why the internet should be left alone. While the internet still remains relatively uncensored and unregulated, it causes us to act like adults in how we deal with it, and in how we supervise others, including our children. However, if this latest set of proposals gets through, it will mean allowing the authorities to decide paternalistically what we can watch or play. In the name of protecting children, we will all be treated as children.


Britain's top universities 'favouring the poor'

Leading universities have been accused of discriminating against middle class pupils by favouring less-qualified students from poorer backgrounds. An investigation by The Daily Telegraph reveals five out of 20 elite institutions in the UK make lower grade offers to sixth-formers from poor-performing schools and deprived homes. The London School of Economics, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh all allow staff to choose students with worse grades. Overall, almost two-thirds of the elite Russell Group - which represents research-intensive universities - attach weighting to candidates' schools, home postcodes and whether family members also attended university as a tiebreaker during the application process.

The findings will fuel allegations of "social engineering" at the most sought-after universities. It comes just days after Oxford was criticised for using postcodes to identify students from less well-off areas when interviewing candidates. Under Government rules, all higher education institutions have a duty to encourage more students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply.

But Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's, a fee-paying school in west London, branded the move "immensely dangerous and hugely unfair". "One is in very close danger of punishing a child for coming from a good home or going to a good school," he said. Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "There would be uproar if we tried to take into account this data when selecting our Olympic team. We don't seem to be able to recognise talent and develop talent as we do in the sporting arena."

At present just a fifth of students at Russell Group universities come from deprived backgrounds, compared to almost a third at other institutions. Three-quarters are from state schools, even though they account for 93 per cent of children educated in the UK. The Telegraph analysed admissions policies at all 20 universities.

Documents reveal that students from poor homes can receive vastly differing advantages depending on where they apply. Twelve universities instructed tutors to use some form of routinely gathered data about students' socio-economic or educational background as a standard part of the admissions procedure. An admissions policy drawn up by the LSE says: "The lower the average performance of the school, the more weight may be given to the candidate whose past examination performance significantly exceeds their school's average performance." Five universities also allow staff to use flexible grade offers to take applicants' backgrounds into consideration.

Newcastle University says: "Admissions tutors have discretion to make conditional offers which differ from the typical entry requirement, if in their judgement the typical entry requirement would not be appropriate because of the particular circumstances of an applicant." A spokesman for Bristol laid out a scenario in which two candidates apply for the same place, "one of whom is predicted to achieve AAB at A-level while the other is heading for AAA".

"The first attends a school that is dealing with many educational challenges and where AAB is exceptional," he said. "The second attends a school where AAA is not unusual. He or she has an uninspiring reference and a lacklustre personal statement. We think that offering a place to the first candidate rather than the second is both fair and in tune with our desire to recruit the students with the strongest academic qualities."

All of the universities who make use of personal information defended their decision, claiming that it allows them to operate a fair policy by identifying potential and not just prior achievement. But eight Russell Group universities - including Birmingham, Cardiff, Imperial, Queen's University Belfast and Southampton - consider the use of such information to be unfair. Some also said it breached their equal opportunities policies and could trigger a decline in academic standards.

An Imperial College London spokesman said: "Admission is based on academic merit... the College will not lower its admission standards as a means of widening access."


Kingsnorth: a camp of uncritical conformity

The British 'climate campers' pose as radical - yet their disdain for consumerism and love of sustainability makes them little different from Prime Minister Brown

Environmental activists have built a climate camp near a power station in Kingsnorth, south-east England, to protest against plans for a new coal-fired plant. Yet Britain's energy infrastructure is heading rapidly for obsolescence, and the British authorities need to start building coal-fired plants now if we are to avoid a shortfall in energy supply. That is of little concern to the climate campers, however - they would positively embrace a fall in energy supply, and the austerity that would follow.

Britain is facing a double whammy of competing problems in terms of electricity generation. For one thing, the ageing stock of power stations currently in use - particularly the nuclear plants - is reaching the end of its life. The amount of electricity generated by these plants will decline sharply over the next 10 years as the plants are decommissioned.

At the same time, there is a widespread desire to reduce the amount of CO2 being produced. One way this might be done is by increasing the proportion of energy we get from low-carbon renewable sources: wind, solar and wave power, in particular. These may supply - if all goes to plan - around 20 per cent of Britain's electricity by 2020 (and that's being ambitious).

But if the nuclear stations, which currently supply more than 20 per cent of our electricity, are not replaced, then Britain will still need to find about 80 per cent of its electricity supplies from non-renewable sources. That mostly means by burning fossil fuels - gas and coal - with all of their accompanying CO2 emissions. Even if the current stock of nuclear stations could be replaced in the next 10 years, there would still be a massive shortfall in electricity supply that must continue to be met by fossil fuels. And the government's one viable plan to replace the ageing nuclear stations - by flogging the company that owns the plants to French power company EDF - has just gone belly-up.

Whatever happens with nuclear and renewables, we're facing a severe shortfall in power in the future unless we use fossil fuels. What we need are more power stations that use reliable technology as soon as possible. Reducing CO2 emissions will simply have to wait. As David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, pointed out in the Guardian: `If we want diversity of supply - not being overdependent on one fuel, such as gas - and security of supply, we need coal for the foreseeable future.' Paul Golby, head of E.ON, the company that wants to build the new coal-fired plant at Kingsnorth, was blunter still: `The climate campers believe that a combination of wind and wave power and increased energy efficiency will be enough to bridge the gap. But that is simply unrealistic.'

The climate campers' blinkered attitude is not surprising, since meeting the needs of consumers is not very high on their list of priorities. In fact, some of them seem to believe that an `energy crunch' is just the sort of useful thing that might halt our mindless consumption.

One climate camper, Isabelle Michel, told BBC TV's Newsnight: `One of the most important things we need to do is to learn to reduce consumption. I think one of the reasons for saying that nuclear is necessary and renewables will not be enough is if we look at maintaining the levels of consumption or even increasing the levels of consumption - because that's the mentality. So we need more, more, more.' Another protester, Kevin Smith, bemoaned `the madness of trying to maintain a world of perpetual economic growth in a world of finite resources'.

This has always been the most fundamental tenet of environmentalism: that economic growth is a bad thing. We humans should reduce our `ecological footprint' and learn to make do with less because resources are finite - and apparently, as we expand our impact on the planet, we are squeezing out other living things that are just as worthy of existence as we are. This is in direct contradiction to any notion of progress, to the idea that through the development of society and technology, we can generate greater quantities of material wealth that allow us to live longer, healthier, more comfortable and potentially freer lives.

Despite what the anti-growth greens might claim, it's not as if we live in a world where everyone has a private jet and dines on foie gras. The current fuel and food prices are reminding many of us of how little spare cash we really have, even in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world. For the billions in the world who live on less than one dollar per day, environmentalists' demand to `reduce consumption' and `halt economic growth' must sound like a sick joke. Behind environmentalists' various debates about energy supply, coal, nuclear and renewables, there lurks their central moralistic belief system: humans are nothing special, in fact they are destructive, and it is high time they learned to live on less.

What is particularly sickening, given the pressing needs of humanity both at home and abroad, is that the climate camp in Kingsnorth is being presented as the cutting edge of radical protest. When so little else is happening politically, an assortment of slick green campaigners, lentil-eating hippies, misguided, idealistic students and assorted middle-aged oddballs has come to be seen as the touchstone of anti-establishment politics.

In fact, these climate campaigners are very far from anti-establishment. With sustainability at the heart of every government policy, the government shares most of the ideas espoused at Kingsnorth right now. Telling people to tighten their belts and put up with less is an idea that politicians have been keen to stress for centuries, while reducing our impact on the planet is the nearest thing to a `big idea' that the political class possesses today. Indeed, it is hard to tell the difference between Isabelle Michel's demand that we rein in consumption and Gordon Brown's recent advice that we should avoid being wasteful by throwing away our food. From the very top of government right through to the edgy green protest movement, there is a consensus that the greedy, thoughtless masses are demanding too much.

The problem for our political leaders - and the source of charges of hypocrisy from the green movement - is that this sustainability-obsessed outlook must live side-by-side with the need to make society work. And that means addressing practical challenges such as making sure the lights work when you hit the switch, that food gets produced and can be delivered to the shops, and so on. The result of this clash between a low-horizons outlook and the practical need to keep British society chugging along is the kind of administrative paralysis we have seen at the heart of the New Labour government.

If practicality versus ideology is proving a problem for the government, it is starting to generate cracks in the green movement, too. Underpinning green thought is a moral distaste for the vulgarity of consumption, which has an almost religious passion to it: fire and brimstone millenarianism meets monkish self-denial. But even greens want to eat, travel, receive medical treatment, and get an education. And these things require a highly developed society that uses up resources and are a constant reminder of the need for humanity to control Nature.

This paradox within environmentalism is best reflected in the current debate about nuclear power. Those greens who are concerned with climate change above all else can see why nuclear, a low-carbon technology, makes sense in the current `emergency'; most famously, Gaia theorist James Lovelock supports the introduction of nuclear power as a way of `saving the planet'. Other greens, however, would rather see society grind to a halt than allow the construction of one more nuclear power station. So some environmentalists can only put the case for nuclear from the scaremongering standpoint that if we don't go nuclear the world will end - while others oppose nuclear on the basis of unfounded fears about waste and risk, which illustrates their deeply selective attitude towards `scientific evidence'.

These debates paint a pretty unpleasant picture of where society stands at present. Contemporary debate is dominated by fearmongering about global warming and nuclear energy on one side, and anti-consumerist moralism on the other. The end result is crippling indecision rather than a clear-cut vision of how people's needs and desires can be met now, and how their lives can be improved in the future. If this carries on much longer, we might need to get used to the lights going out.


Infertile couples to be priority for NHS IVF treatment

A complete turnaround. Up until now there has been a pervasive attitude in the NHS that infertility is not a "real" problem. I suspect that Britain's socialists have decided that they need to breed all the little future taxpayers that they can

Infertile couples could soon be offered wider and more consistent treatment on the NHS under the first proposals from the government panel that has the task of ending the IVF postcode lottery. NHS trusts should give IVF a much higher importance when drawing up spending plans, by taking into account the effects of infertility on mental health and general wellbeing, the influential group will say today.

The advice from the Expert Group on Commissioning NHS Infertility Provision, which was convened by health ministers this year, will put fresh pressure on the 95 per cent of primary care trusts (PCTs) that do not offer the three cycles of IVF recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Its interim report, which suggests several measures designed to improve access to IVF, comes as an NHS regional health authority has agreed for the first time to implement the NICE guidelines across all 14 of its trusts. The decision by NHS East of England means that infertile couples in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire will be entitled to three cycles of treatment from next April, provided that they meet eligibility criteria.

Infertility is a problem for between one in six and one in seven couples. Almost 45,000 cycles of IVF are performed in Britain each year, but limited NHS provision means that about 75 per cent of these are conducted privately, at an average cost of o2,000 per cycle. NICE, the value-for-money watchdog, recommended in 2004 that PCTs should provide three cycles to infertile couples in which the woman is aged between 23 and 39. It added that these should be full cycles, including the replacement of frozen embryos, should a couple fail to conceive with fresh ones.

A Department of Health survey published in June found, however, that just 9 out of 151 PCTs in England meet this standard. About two thirds offer only one cycle, and half of these do not replace frozen embryos. Three trusts offer no IVF at all.

In March, Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, asked an expert group to recommend ways of encouraging more trusts to implement the NICE guidance in full. Its first advice, seen by The Times, will be published today. It found that the main barrier to wider provision was the low priority that many trusts give to IVF. This needed to be reassessed in the light of evidence about links between infertility and depression, stress, relationship breakdown and quality of life. "The provision of infertility treatment has not been seen as a traditional NHS service and, therefore, is often viewed as a relatively low priority compared to more visible conditions whose impact is well established," the report will say.

"The group's final report will seek to consider the often unseen consequences of infertility, including the impact on mental health and general wellbeing, which may draw on other NHS services for treatment, as well as the positive benefits of IVF." The group has also identified a "lack of knowledge and understanding of infertility and its treatment" among commissioning managers, and a poor grasp of what the NICE guidelines actually mean.

In the light of the group's advice, Ms Primarolo will write today to all PCTs to clarify that NHS IVF cycles should include the replacement of frozen embryos as well as fresh ones. If trusts acted on this, it would significantly improve some infertile couples' chances of a baby.

Ms Primarolo's letter will also confirm that NICE will not review its guidance until 2010-11. Many trusts had been holding off from offering three cycles, as NICE had been due to reassess its policy as early as this year.

The expert group, made up of five NHS commissioning experts and a patient representative, will also recommend that the NHS set a fixed price that PCTs would pay for IVF. Such national tariffs already exist for dozens of medical procedures, such as heart bypasses, and help managers to plan their spending. A spokesman for the Department of Health said that it was receptive to this idea. "It is appropriate for IVF to be considered carefully for inclusion on the national tariff," he said.

Mark Hamilton, chairman of the British Fertility Society, which represents medical professionals in the field, said that it was right for PCTs to consider the wider health impact of infertility. "This is a positive development," he said. "Clinicians and practitioners involved in infertility services are all aware that we are not just dealing with a physical pathology. "Infertility is a disease, but it also has fallout beyond that for a significant proportion of couples, causing mental health problems, depression, stress-related illnesses and so on."

Dr Hamilton welcomed the East of England decision, though he questioned whether other parts of the country would match it unless the Department of Health provided more dedicated funds. "It is a tremendous step forward that a region has seen the value of doing this, and I would hope that others will do the same. But there is certainly a view in the sector that central funding would solve an awful lot of problems."


Nod for 'top-up' drugs

Dozens of NHS hospitals are allowing patients to "top up" their treatment with medicines bought privately. These are often expensive cancer drugs the health authority refuses to fund.

Topping up or "co-pay" is against NHS regulations, according to the Department of Health. But there is nothing in NHS regulations that prohibits patients buying in treatment if they wish, according to senior legal opinion obtained by health insurer Western Provident Association.

John Barron, Conservative MP for Billericay, discovered the hospitals' "top-up" figures through freedom of information laws.

The subject is relevant to expats returning to the UK seeking to switch from NHS to private care, or the other way round, because under many policies cover is capped at certain cash levels.


Cholesterol drug linked to cancer deaths

A cholesterol lowering drug may increase the risk of cancer, according to new findings. The drug called Inegy is taken by thousands of people in the UK and the drug regulator is studying research which has linked to indicated a link to increased cancers and deaths from cancer. It is a combination of the statin simvastatin and ezetimibe for use in patients whose cholesterol cannot be controlled by one drug alone. Just under 300,000 prescriptions were dispensed for Inergy in the last two years in England and Wales, official figures show.

The American Food and Drug Administration issued a statement saying preliminary findings from a study has shown found the drug did not reduce cardiovascular problems as expected and a larger percentage of patients on the drug were diagnosed with and died from all types of cancer than those on the placebo during the five year study.

The FDA did not say how big the alleged increased risk of cancer was and said is not advising that patients should come off the drug nor that doctors should stop prescribing it. Its statement said other trials have shown no increased risk of cancer in patients using the drug. The final report from the trial should be available to the FDA in three months and it expects the analysis to take further six months after that.

A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the UK, said: "The MHRA is aware of the issue. Any regulatory action that may be necessary to minimise harm to patients will be taken once the new information has been carefully reviewed."

A statement from the makers of the drug Merck and Schering-Plough said the finding was likely to be an "anomaly". It said: "Based on the information presented by the study investigator and the analyses conducted independently by the University of Oxford Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit, MSP believes the cancer finding is likely to be an anomaly that, taken in the light of all the available data, does not support an association with Vytorin (also known as Inegy). "We are committed to working with regulatory agencies to further evaluate the available data and interpretations of those data; we do not believe that changes in the clinical use of Vytorin are warranted. Of course, patients taking Vytorin should talk to their doctor if they have questions."


The British Labour party has finally killed the Thatcher boom: "The longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in British history has ended, leaving the country on the brink of recession. Almost two decades of increasing employment, disposable income and house prices ground to a halt in June, official figures showed yesterday. After 16 years, or 63 consecutive quarters, of continuous growth it is likely that Britain is already in recession, City analysts say. Another downgrade in a month's time could confirm that the economy has shrunk. The latest data, from the Office for National Statistics, showed a slump in every part of the economy as the credit crunch and the rising cost of living took their toll."

No comments: