Net.wars: Let a million censors bloom!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 March 2002

On the face of it, rating and labeling sites doesn't sound so bad. After all, we all want to protect kids, right? And parents surely have the right to decide what kind of material they think is acceptable for their children, right?

Wendy M Grossman

Yesterday saw the launch of ICRAfilter , the long-promised ratings and labeling scheme for the Internet. ICRA, the Internet Content Ratings Association, which took over from the American games-oriented RSAC in 1999, has developed a ratings pack intended to let anyone describe their site in a couple of minutes, and a user-configurable filter that works with Windows and sits on the TCP/IP stack, thereby governing all parts of the user's Internet access, not just what they do on the Web.

There are limitations. No Mac or Linux (or mobile phone) versions yet. No fine-grained filtering of IRC, other types of chat, or instant messaging – you can only turn those on or off. ICRA is still working on ways to make it easy for Web site owners on "communities" sites such as Geocities (http://geocities.yahoo.com/home) or the WELL , which in the past has been blocked by some filtering software, to rate their individual pages.

The system is the one that's been discussed so long as PICS, for platform-independent content system . Webmasters fill out a questionnaire listing categories such as sex, violence, nudity, language. ICRAfilter then generates a metatag which the webmaster places on the site. Users download and configure the filtering software, which allows them to specify acceptable levels for each of those categories. They may add specific sites they wish allowed or blocked. If they are parents trying to limit what their children can access, they can set different profiles for adults and children, or even different profiles for individual kids. Finally, the system blocks access to the specified material. The filter is designed so that trusted third parties may create templates. If, for example, you are a creationist organization, you may create a template blocking sites with information about evolution for parents to download. Makes you want to create a good science filter in retaliation, doesn't it?

On the face of it, rating and labeling sites doesn't sound so bad. After all, we all want to protect kids, right? And parents surely have the right to decide what kind of material they think is acceptable for their children, right? (All together now: "depends on the parents.") But labeling and ratings systems have always been controversial on the Net because the potential for abuse is so great. Once you have labels and ratings, you have a system that's ripe for exploitation. At the ICRA launch, solicitor and former IWF board member Mark Stephens poured contempt on this idea, calling it "ill-informed criticism." Instead of criticizing the tools, he said, the criticism "should be aimed at the censors."

But under ICRA's scheme that's all of us: the democratization of censorship. In this world, a teacher or parent can be a tin-pot dictator just as easily as a dictator with political power. ICRA is trying to get around this by putting in its licensing terms a requirement that the software's use may not be compulsory. How exactly do they plan to enforce that? Do dictators who want to clamp down on free speech balk at violating the terms of software licenses?

"Most people are reasonable," said Stephens to the Internet Watch Foundation's Sonia Livingstone on the way to lunch. Has he never spent any time on the Net? Has he looked at what happened to the beautifully ordered domain name system when users got hold of it? Or Usenet newsgroups? Everyone thinks they're tolerant, well-informed, and right about most things, just as everyone thinks they have good taste and a great sense of humor. But, as Nora Ephron observed in When Harry met Sally ... that simply can't be true. Who among us other than Archie Bunker and his British original, Alf Garnet, is going to hold up his hand proudly and say, "I'm an intolerant, racist bigot whose views should be blocked"?

Setting aside the philosophical question of whether creating a structure that can be used for censorship is potentially arming a police state, there is another question about ratings. Can the grass roots survive filtering? The software can be set to block all unrated sites. By far and away the biggest users of ratings are going to be commercial outfits. The BBC or Yahoo! will clearly benefit from being able to advertise that they are "family-friendly." But that doesn't apply to the millions of Web users who put up small sites and don't advertise. Will those millions rate their sites? What seems possible is that the ratings system will ultimately act to help commercialize the Net even further, driving traffic preferentially toward the commercial interests.

Yet most people jump with some relief on the idea of ratings, which seem so much more reasonable, and so much better, than the more draconian alternative of outright censorship. But they always seem to come backed by the threat of government regulation. At yesterday's launch, this element was provided by Beverly Hughes, Parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, who said the system won't be complete until labeling becomes a standard feature of every Web site. Based on years of Net experience, I will predict that will never happen unless labeling becomes compulsory. And then it really is a censorship system. So I guess I won't be putting together that "good science" filter just yet.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).