"A new battle over keeping the Net clean," by J.Weber/LATimes

Declan McCullagh declan at well.com
Tue Aug 5 11:16:12 PDT 1997

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 5 Aug 1997 10:49:32 -0700 (PDT)
From: Declan McCullagh <declan at well.com>
To: fight-censorship-announce at vorlon.mit.edu
Subject: "A new battle over keeping the Net clean," by J.Weber/LATimes

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Date: Tue, 5 Aug 1997 09:23:15 -0700 (PDT)
From: Jonathan Weber <Jonathan.Weber at latimes.com>
To: Declan McCullagh <declan at well.com>
Subject: ratings story

Innovation/ Jonathan Weber 
A New Battle   Over Keeping   the Web Clean   


   When Congress passed the Internet  censorship law known as the  
Communications Decency Act early last year, the many companies, advocacy 
groups and individuals with a stake in the Internet rose up as one to 
challenge the measure in court. 
   But now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the CDA 
unconstitutional, the victorious coalition is fracturing, and a bitter 
battle is being joined over the Clinton-backed effort to develop a rating 
and labeling system for the Internet.  
   On one side are the big, mainstream Internet and computer companies, 
led by America Online and Microsoft, which proclaim their eagerness to 
make cyberspace "safe for families.'' Lining up against them are 
free-speech advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and 
the American Library Assn., which see ratings systems as censorship 
   It's not exactly a fair fight: Ratings proponents have popular 
opinion, the economic interests of the industry and the power of the 
presidency on their side. But here's a prediction: The free-speech forces 
will lose the battle, but they'll ultimately win the war. And with a 
little luck there won't be too much damage done in the interim. 
   The debate over ratings begins with a technology called PICS, which 
stands for "platform for Internet content selection.'' PICS is a 
mechanism for labeling Web pages according to their content. The labels 
can then be read by a software program, which in turn can block access to 
sites that have specific types of content. 
PICS itself is not a ratings system, but rather a     method for 
implementing a ratings system. The theory is that once PICS is in place 
throughout the Internet, a multiplicity of ratings systems would emerge. 
A Christian Coalition ratings system might block access to anything with 
any sexual content as well as certain political sites, for example, while 
another system might block only hard-core porn. Parents and others could 
easily choose. 
   So far, so good. There would be no law requiring Web sites to use PICS 
labels; the Clinton administration has stressed that any ratings plan 
would be voluntary. But parents and others would get a new toolone more 
robust and effective than existing software programs, such as 
CyberPatrol, that block out sites deemed unsuitable for kids. 
   The free speech purists have a philosophical objection even to this. 
""Ratings systems are developed to enable one individual to exercise 
control over what another person sees,'' says Marc Rotenberg, director of 
the Electronic Privacy Information Center. That might be OK for parents 
and their children, he allows, but such a tool will inevitably be used by 
public institutions and governmentsif not here then abroadto restrict 
   An even bigger worry is that what's being sold as a voluntary system 
that will include a multiplicity of ratings systems is actually going to 
be an all-but-mandatory system that offers very few choices. 
   Consider, first of all, what happens to Web sites that decline to rate 
their pages. Any PICS-based filter would have to block all unrated pages. 
Already, ratings proponents are calling on the major search services, 
such as Yahoo, not to index unrated sites. Overseas Web services would 
face the choice of adopting a U.S. labeling system or forgoing access to 
any U.S. readers. Web publishers that didn't want to participate might 
suddenly find themselves in a deserted backwater of the network. 
   There's also the question of how disputes over ratings would be 
arbitrated. Sites would be self-rated, and in fact the vast majority of 
sites would have no incentive to misrepresent themselves. But what 
happens when some do anyway? Would it be a crime for a porn site to 
proclaim itself suitable for children? 
   At the moment, moreover, it doesn't appear that there are a variety of 
ratings systems under development representing different values. In fact, 
a system being created by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, a 
Microsoft-led industry group, is quickly emerging as a de facto standard. 
   The battles over how RSAC handles certain kinds of sites have only 
just begun, but to see the inevitable problems one need look no further 
than the ongoing discussion about news. 
N   ews sites, reasonably enough, don't want to rate     themselves. At 
the very least it would be impractical to label every page of a big news 
site every day to warn of violent or tasteless or otherwise disturbing 
content. And labeling news just doesn't seem very consistent with freedom 
of the press. 
   So the news organizations want to have a special news rating. Who 
qualifies for a news rating? Well, a committeeoperating under the 
auspices of the Internet Content Coalition, which represents a number of 
major publishers (including The Times)would decide. News organizations 
get together to decide who is and who isn't a news organization. Hmm. 
   In the face of these objections, the Clinton administration and the 
companies backing the ratings effort say that, first of all, something 
has to be done to stave off new legislation. If industry doesn't act, 
Congress will come up with "son of CDA,'' and this time it might hold up 
in court. 
   There are other motives too, though, namely a desire to expand the 
market. "Nothing is as important as making this medium 
family-friendly,'' America Online Chairman Steve Case declared here last 
   That's funny coming from him, because AOL owes much of its success to 
its decidedly un-family-friendly sex-chat rooms, but he's obviously 
decided that a clean image is important to further growth. The online 
giant is spearheading a two-day meeting here in October, where the 
ratings battle is likely to come to a head. 
   The administration and the big companies both want to bring the 
Internet into the mainstream. If some of its wilder and woollier aspects 
are marginalized in the process, well, good. 
   And that is the nightmare of free-speech advocates: that a medium that 
the Supreme Court declared ought to be treated at least as liberally as 
print (ever heard of ratings for books?) will nonetheless be driven into 
TV-like conformity. 
This is a legitimate fear. Personally, though, I don't     think the 
worst will happen. The Internet is simply too big, too diverse and too 
fast-changing to be tamed by even a semi-voluntary ratings mechanism. The 
business interests, moreover, cut both ways: Family-friendly might look 
like a way to expand the market today, but pornography and gambling and 
even radical politics are sure to remain a big part of the online 
   AOL's Case says that online service providers competing on the basis 
of who is more family-friendly would be akin to airlines competing based 
on their safety records. That's a ridiculous analogy: Everyone thinks 
plane crashes are bad, but not everyone feels the same way about controls 
on Internet content. 
   In my ideal world, Internet providers should be competing based on 
values, not trying to impose some kind of bogus consensus. 
   Esther Dyson, one of the industry's most respected thinkers, favors 
the development of PICS as a tool but stresses the importance of 
choicesand of people taking responsibility for their actions. In the 
wired world, she says, power is constantly shifting and devolving away 
from central authorities, and that requires individuals to be less 
passive: "I want local control,'' she says. "I don't want no control.'' 
   PICS and RSAC have powerful forces behind them and stand a good chance 
of establishing themselves as part of the mainstream Internet. But 
there's a natural tendency toward diversity in cyberspace, and it's hard 
to see how they would become ubiquitous. 
   If individuals and organizations are vigilant about how ratings are 
usedi.e., not by governments and not by public institutions such as 
librariesthere's a chance that they'll remain what they were originally 
intended to be: one of many means for people to manage the often 
unmanageable Internet. 
   Jonathan Weber (Jonathan.Weber at latimes.com) is editor of The Cutting 


Jonathan Weber
Jonathan.Weber at latimes.com
Technology Editor
Los Angeles Times 

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