Neva Remailer nobody at neva.org
Tue Aug 19 09:49:05 PDT 1997


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 The ILPN discusses PICS with Joseph Reagle of the W3

 August 18th 1997

 Joseph Reagle Jr. joined the World Wide Web Consortium
 (W3C) in October of 1996 to focus on policy issues
 related to the development of global technologies and
 their relationship to social and legal structures.
 Specifically, how to promote "good" engineering when
 applied to a multifaceted and often contentious policy
 environment; one result of this activity is the W3C
 Statement on Policy. Mr. Reagle has also been working
 on filtering, digital signature, intellectual property
 rights management, and privacy capabilities on the Web.
 He has also been an active contributor to the
 development of the Platform for Privacy Preferences
 (P3) project at the W3C. P3 will enable computer users
 to be informed and to control the collection, use and
 disclosure of their personal information on the Web.ÿ

 ILPN: How does PICS work?

 The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) is
 an infrastructure for associating labels (metadata)
 with Internet resources. It was originally designed to
 help parents and teachers control what children access
 on the Internet, but it also facilitates other uses for
 labels, including code signing, privacy, agents, and
 intellectual property rights management.

 PICS allows organizations to easily define content
 rating systems, and enable users to selectively block
 (or seek) information. The standard is not a rating
 system (like MPAA or RSACi), but an encoding method for
 the ratings of those systems. Those encoded ratings can
 then be distributed with documents, or through third
 party label bureaus.

 ILPN: Can you summarize
 the origin of PICS as well
 as the coalition behind       [Related Links]
 its development? What role
 is W3C playing in the           The World Wide Web
 ongoing development and       Consortium PICS Site
 promotion of PICS?
                                 Family Friendly
 During 1995, a number of
 activities occurred that      Internet...The White
 were related to concerns      House Internet Content
 of children accessing         Filtering Plan.
 potentially inappropriate
 Web content:                    Australian
                               Anti-PICS Site
   1. The Senate Judiciary
      Committee heard            Ratings Now,
      testimony regarding
      the "Protection of       Censorship
      Children From            Tomorrow...from SALON
      Computer Pornography
      Act of 1995" (S. 892)      ACLU Press Release
   2. The Information          on the July White
      Highway Parental         House Summit
      Empowerment Group
      (IHPEG), a coalition       Foucault in
      of three companies
      (Microsoft               Cyberspace:
      Corporation, Netscape    Surveillance,
      Communications, and      Sovereignty and
      Progressive              Hard-Wired Censors ...
      Networks), was formed    an absolute must read
      to develop standards     article from James
      for empowering           Boyle, a law professor
      parents to screen        at WashingtonÿCollege
      inappropriate network    of Law,
      content.                 AmericanÿUniversity.
   3. A number of standards
      for content labeling were proposed including
      Borenstein's and New's Internet Draft "KidCode"
      (June 1995), the Voluntary Internet Self Rating by
      Alex Stewart and NetRate by Peter Wayner.
   4. A number of services and products for blocking
      inappropriate content were announced, including
      Cyber Patrol, CyberSitter, Internet Filter,
      NetNanny, SafeSurf, SurfWatch, and WebTrack.

 By August, the standards activity was consolidated
 under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium
 (W3C) when the W3C, IHPEG, and twenty other
 organizations agreed to merge their efforts and
 resources to develop a standard for content selection.
 The intent of the PICS project was to demonstrate that
 it was possible and better for individuals and families
 on the Internet to have control over the the
 information they receive, rather than creating a
 national framework for censorship.

 Today, the W3C believes PICS-based technology can
 fulfill the requirements of mediating access
 potentially offensive or illegal content. The next big
 step is educating the users on how to use those
 technologies. For the future, we are working on the
 Resource Description Framework as the basis for a
 richer metadata infrastructure. Applications such as
 our P3 privacy project will use it to enable sites to
 make privacy statements.

 ILPN: Can you describe the difference between
 'labeling' 'filtering' and 'blocking,' and why this set
 of distinctions might be important?

 Paul Resnick's PICS Options FAQ has a very good answer
 to this question and some of the others that you ask.
 To summarize, labels are statements. They have the
 capability to describe a Web page, or to make any
 arbitrary assertion. Obviously, people can use such
 information to block, or select what they want to see.
 To generalize, one can use metadata to "rate" a Web
 page with respect to some rating system. Given ratings,
 a user applies a filter (her preferences about the
 ratings) to determine which pages are most appropriate;
 some action is associated with the result of the
 filtering. The common result is the blocking or
 selection of a page, but the user could also be
 presented with a list of sites sorted according to her

 ILPN: What do you make of the opposition by EFF, the
 American Library Association and the Electronic Privacy
 Information Center to PICS? Do you see PICS as a
 bulwark of free speech, or simply as the lesser of two
 evils (the other being government regulation)?

 I would characterize the response from each of those
 organizations differently, and of course my response is
 based on my own understanding of that position:ÿ

   1. The ALA does not oppose PICS or filtering in
      general. I believe they acknowledge its usefulness
      as a means of parental empowerment, but do not
      feel it is appropriate for installation on every
      computer by default in their libraries. I respect
      this point of view while acknowledging that
      libraries may have requirements placed upon them
      by their constituencies or by the law with respect
      to illegal materials; it is up to the libraries,
      their constituencies, and governments to
      appropriately resolve these concerns.
   2. I personally like the direction the EFF took in
      working on "Public Interest Principles for Online
      Filtration, Ratings and Labelling Systems" and
      hope to see such efforts continue. The W3C feels
      that metadata is necessary to the Web. Hence, I
      think it is somewhat naive to criticize the
      capability to support metadata. While I do not
      agree with every position in the EFF document, I
      liked it because I think it is more constructive
      to discuss how that metadata infrastructure can be
      best used (or how to prevent abuse) rather than
      trying to hobble the Web.
   3. I, and my colleagues at the W3C, encourage
      rigorous discussion on the use of filtering
      technologies and how they affect individuals'
      rights. I do not buy the slippery slope argument
      that all technology which governments could use to
      do "bad things" must not be developed.

 I do not see PICS in grand terms; PICS is an
 application of metadata, as I explain elsewhere. To
 respond to the later question I do prefer the
 capability to exclude unwanted speech over the
 suppression of it at its source. Also, metadata itself
 is speech -- having the capability to laud, critique
 and criticize others is fundamental to a robust

 ILPN: How likely is it that PICS-based software will be
 mandated by governments at the level of ISPs?

 Unknown. Also, governments could theoretically do a
 number of things such as :

    * create rating systems
    * determine filtering criteria
    * require the use of filtering technology in servers
      or in clients
    * require the use of certain rating systems, etc.

 They can accomplish this by legislative action, by
 interpreting existing statutes, by promoting
 self-regulatory structures, or by providing incentives
 to comply with the policies by attaching liability, or
 removing it, to the players involved. Even with a
 specific question in hand, it would be a difficult task
 to predict the path of any nation.

 ILPN: Are you concerned with the potential abuse of
 PICS by governments and/or employers?

 Yes. I personally would protest or subvert my
 employer's or government's efforts in applying
 mandatory filters against my will; I do use filters to
 select content I am interested in and to get rid of
 spam and bozos. Regardless of my personal opinion, the
 W3C does not have the competency to tell other
 organizations what their policies should be. We can
 tell them about the technology and consequences of its
 use, but what they do with it is their choice

 ILPN: What about the possibility that a third-party
 labeling organization will obtain too much power?

 In terms of an independent third party? Let the market
 decide. If there are monopolistic concerns, a nation
 may wish to apply anti-trust laws. If it is a political
 entity, I hope it has some mechanism for being held
 accountable to its constituency.

 ILPN: We tend to think of PICS in terms of excluding
 materials deemed offensive. What are more 'positive'
 possible applications of PICS?

 PICS is merely one application of "metadata." Metadata
 means "data about data" and we are working very hard on
 this with our Resource Description Framework (RDF).
 This is a fundamental computer science concept and is
 essential to the future of the Web. Any time you wish
 to make a statement or an assertion, to rely upon a
 trusted opinion, it is "metadata." Our Platform for
 Privacy Preferences (P3) is another application of
 metadata. We wish to enable sites to make statements
 about their privacy practices so users are informed and
 can make choices about how they wish to interact with
 sites. A useful feature of metadata is that it is can
 be machine readable, so agents can act on behalf of the
 user, freeing the user to concentrate on higher order
 content and interactions. Hence, when I configure my
 agent, I should be able to search Web sites with the
 type of content I like, those which have privacy
 practices that I like, or that are referred to me by
 trusted third parties, and those that support the
 payment capabilities that I posses.

 ILPN: PICS seems to transform the web from an arena in
 which anything goes, and in which each individual must
 define his or her own participation, to an arena in
 which various 'cultures' can establish their own,
 separately designed comfort zones. Was this an
 intention of the PICS developers, or is it simply an
 unintended consequence of an effort to protect

 I donût know if this was an original, explicit
 intention of PICS, but it soon became apparent that
 this is what PICS was about: allowing people to create
 their own cultural boundaries on the Web. I look at a
 lot of what we do at the W3C as not only providing the
 basic infrastructure for exchanging hyperlinked
 documents, but we are providing the capability to have
 more sophisticated interactions with other users and
 agents on the Web -- homegrown cultures and societies.
 "Real world" entities may see these tools as ways of
 extending their own social structure onto the Web, and
 this is actually what a lot of the PICS debate is about
 in my opinion. We'll see how successful governments can

 In the meantime, the W3C does want to mitigate the
 possible fragmentation on the Web from either: 1)
 people dropping off it all together and creating their
 own, or 2) tearing it apart from fighting over whose
 cultural norms should prevail. I'll quote from the W3C
 Policy Statement on this point:

      ...This architecture must allow local
      policies to co-exist without cultural
      fragmentation or domination...


 ILPN: Is W3C promoting the development of PICS into
 proxy server products?

 Yes. The PICS Options FAQ states that filter processing
 can be centralized at a proxy server while still
 permitting individuals to choose the filtering rules. I
 will qualify this by saying that it has never been the
 intent of the W3C to create technology for governments
 to use as a means of centralized control. Not that
 governments couldn't do such a thing (and there are
 other ways for them to do it if they wanted to), but
 that isn't our intent in working on this technology.

 ILPN:. What kind of legislation, and court cases, do
 you expect to see in the future regarding PICS?

 I expect to see continued activity in:

   1. drawing the line between "illegal" and
      "inappropriate" content
   2. determining what obligations services have in
      restricting illegal material
   3. developing self regulatory structures for limiting
      childrens' access to "inappropriate" materialÿ
      (promoting a "family friendly internet.")

 ILPN: What should people maintaining web sites be doing
 regarding PICS and the various rating systems? Should
 people be rating their sites now? What might the
 consequences be for neglecting to rate one's site? Is
 it important for people to keep track of how their web
 sites are rated, and if so, how can they do this?

 Technologies, such as Microsystems Software's
 CyberLabeler, are being developed which follow the
 recommendations of the PICS specifications and make
 labeling sites much easier. Content creators that want
 to label should continue to demand such technologies
 and that such technologies be integrated into Web
 development applications. I expect that in the near
 future, many sites will be generated dynamically from
 databases; those databases will be indexed and
 structured by metadata. At which point, labels and
 rating will be integral to the creation of dynamic,
 customized sites. Search engines may also begin relying
 upon the useful information found in metadata to return
 more appropriate -- on "target" -- information to

 The consequence of not rating your site might be that
 if you have potentially illegal or offensive material
 you may draw regulatory attention upon yourself. Also,
 by not labeling you may be overlooked by those using
 filtering and content selection technologies. Most
 adult sites are more than happy to label and use
 filtering services, they want to attract those looking
 for the services they offerÿ while avoiding the
 difficulties associated with angry parents.

 ILPN:Thank you for your time.

 My pleasure.

Send us your comments on this article

Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved

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