censoring the net (1997)

If there is a block to getting the Internet accepted as a multimedia entertainment medium, it is not just to do with bandwidth. There an idea around that the Internet is a mass of unseemly stuff that people need protecting from. To take the warning of US Senator Exon, who last year attempted to introduce controls as the Internet is becoming an electronic ‘red light district’.

But somewhere in the foaming are some universal fears: this ‘red light district’ is non-stop, round the clock, and there is no watershed on which parents can rely. There too is the fear is that kids can adopt virtual receding hairlines and wander here virtually unchallenged.

A fast reverse through technology shows we have seen this bit before – that every time technology gained a new feature button, the law has had to play catch-up. For example, as far back as 1865 the US introduced a law after discovering that ‘dirty pictures’ were being mailed to Civil War troops. And in 1926, as movies became talkies and risked being too real, US Postmaster Will H Hays and the industry drew up a list of ‘don’ts and be carefuls’ which was to guide film content for the next 60 years. As someone once said, invention is the mother of repression.

It is to be expected that people approach censorship with varying temperaments, but today we crudely grade media on whether it is suitable for an entire country and into age bands or time of day bands. The Internet can be much cleverer than this: it can be told what you like, and what you don’t.

The way into this cleverness is a system that tags anything on the Internet with a content label. The system, called PICS – the Platform for Internet Content Selection was established by the World Wide Wide standards consortium, a couple of years ago. PICS classifies what is on an Internet page, in much the same way that the food industry agree on ways to label a food’s nutritional content.

As PICS stands, it doesn’t impose any ‘values’, it doesn’t, for example, say what is on the label. If it applied to video films, it could label the box with the type of program and its content. It wouldn’t specify how to do that – it would merely say what the label looks like and where should be stuck.

It is when PICS is put into action that values are added. For example, RSAC, the Recreational Software Advisory Council, a voluntary body set up by the game software industry, is proposing a rating system using PICS. The idea is that everyone producing Internet stuff tags their pages in way which tells the computer how racy the material is.

The rating system is seen by RSAC as a way for Internet publishers to sort themselves out or self-regulate before “the heavy hand of government legislation decides what is or is not acceptable”. Their system is based on four aspects of contentious content: sex, violence, nudity and bad language. Using their guidelines, which grew out of classifying games software, Internet publishers can rate their wares. Under a sex heading they choose from a five point scale: passionate kissing scores a one, clothed sexual touching scores a two, while ‘non-explicit or explicit sex and sex crimes’ score three and four. None of the above obviously scores a zero.

The procedure, which is open to all, is to go to the RSAC site, and then work through a questionnaire. It was here that I learned usefully that the showing of Chewbacca’s rear scores a zero for nudity.

Following this exercise, the RSAC site immediately supplies the rating label – a string of characters which can be pasted into an Internet page. Security features include a checksum which will tell the browser software if a label has been tampered with, as well as a digital signature which can verify that a label really was created by some high merit organisation.

What isn’t clear is whether anyone would want to low rate any high rated pages – although a comparison with film, where the unrestricted movies gross the most money, bears thinking about. So it’s here that the digital signature comes in – in time, maybe wary parents will look to organisations they trust – say the Boy Scouts, or Internet providers, to rubber stamp Internet sites for having suitable content.

So much for labelling the content, the final stage is getting the computer to read the tags and grey-out access to them. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has a ‘content adviser’ which allows a parent to set the levels of sex, violence and so on that they feel is suitable for their children. That still leaves a gap to plug: someone can still install a less circumspect browser although in France there are now laws about supplying browsers without content controls. It’s a matter of very little time before these control features shift deeper into the computer’s operating system, or indeed back to the Internet Provider.

What remains is whether a critical mass of publishers embrace PICS. Major providers CompuServe, AOL and Microsoft Network are part of the initial mass, and when BBC World-wide launch their web service this spring they too will use PICS tags. The call for net censorship is certain to be heard again, but in the wake of available and intelligent controls, telling the kids to hit the off button has a certain crudeness of its own.

Contacts:
www.w3.org/pub/PICS www.rsac.org