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The EU Commission's communication Illegal and Harmful Content on the Internet is very much in favour of rating systems that use standards like PICS. Develop by the Web Consortium, PICS is a technological answer to the problem of limiting the scope of Internet access to children in a flexible way depending on values defined by the parents. PICS is an open standard that allows the labelling of HTML pages and Web sites in such a way that browsers can filter out certain types of labelled material. The new versions of Netscape 4.0 and IE. 4.0 due out early next year are both likely to include the use of PICS.
Special thanks to Hubert Houdoy of Réseau d'Activités à Distance for his comments about an earlier version of this text.

Sorry. Access Denied!

What is appealing in such systems as PICS is that they apparently devolve responsibility to the individual in the choice of material accessible on the Web. Using appropriate software and a choice of different rating systems, the task then becomes to help individuals determine what can be accessed, by whom and when. A godsend, you might say, to harassed parents worried about what their children might come across on the Web. That was certainly the idea of those who created PICS. But is it?

Bar-coding the world

Is not the wish to label Internet content a bit like King Canute ordering the rising tide to stop coming in? The major problem with rating systems is the mass of work involved. As a content provider, if your content is not rated, those people using filtering software may well not be able to access it. If there are many ratings bodies corresponding to the local sets of values, trying to get your material "screened" will be far too much work especially if your site is small but prolific. On the other hand, the task of those evaluating is enormous and consequently extremely costly and time consuming. In order to survive economically, rating systems will either have to appeal to extremely wide audiences thus defeating the aim of having a multiplicity of rating systems and underlying values, or limit the number or types of sites they evaluate and consequently exclude much material not deemed worthy of labelling.

A possible partial solution to such problems might be found in networking between specialised rating organisations as well as networking between smaller sites to get their material rated.

Changing limits

Words, in dividing up reality, help us make sense - and sometimes nonsense - of the world around us. In social reality, limits and frontiers are prerequisites of social order even if they can also cause unrest and disorder. Those who preach for the breaking down of all limits misjudge the necessary organising role such limits play in society. As Hubert Houdoy quite rightly pointed out to me, "the assertion of limits is a positive act of freedom". Would you condone racial hatred on the grounds that everybody has to be free to express their mind? Surely not. The major question is how individual or group-based limits and values interact with each other and to what extent fixed limits are able to evolve with changing circumstances. This leads us to the necessity to combine rights and responsibilities. We have an international declaration of Human Rights, but what about Human Responsibilities?

Carving up Cyberland for the next crusades

Current geography of the Internet is loosely defined by shared interests - in particular by mutual interlinking of related Web sites. As a potential tool for imposing value judgements on others, PICS makes it possible to redefine the geography of the Internet differently in terms of value judgements, staking out territories, defending and imposing particular values and, as a result, setting less permeable frontiers. Isn't it amazing how many human beings, when confronted with wild wide-open plains and awe-inspiring vistas build fences! Is this really desirable? Is it avoidable?

A system of self-indexing of content - if agreement can be reached on criteria for indexing - would solve many of the problems. Not only would it help people find their way around, but it could indicate areas to be avoided without carving up Cyberland ready for the next crusades!

Swallow. It for your own good!

PICS is designed to give the person in a position of authority or power (the parent, the teacher,...) the possibility of denying access to certain Internet content to some or all of those people under that person's authority or power (children, pupils,...). Amongst the possibilities offered by the PICS standard is filtering at various different levels: the browser, the company firewall server, the access provider's proxy server. This implies that the system can be used by employers to restrict access of employees to what employers judge undesirable material. Should access providers be considered legally responsible for the material they provide access to, such a system as PICS could avoid them being taken to court by enabling them to block access to certain types of material of their own choosing for their clients. Maybe employers and access providers will be honest enough to send back the message:

Sorry. Access denied!
For your own good and that of our company, we have decided that the material you have requested is not accessible to you

Solving one problem (or even many) may well create others. Control over access to information has always been a prerogative if not a weapon of those in positions of power. PICS provides a convenient tool for those who get their power by building walls around others. For all their ingenuity and usefulness, the answer to the problem of "harmful" content, if answer there be, does not lie uniquely in open standards such as PICS. What is also needed is to work on so-called "human nature" as well as the question of fundamental rights and responsibilities.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: November 12th, 1996 - Last up-dated: November 14th, 1996