At The Censorware Summit [Declan]

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 14:51:37 -0400 (EDT)

Here are the headlines in this piece:

1. the _SPA_ claims MS will ship future IE with ratings 'on'
2. scare that directories will _require_ (rather than allow) ratings
3. Troubling portent of RSACnews for 'legitimate' media

Kudos to Declan... RK


At The Censorware Summit
by Declan McCullagh July 16, 1997

If you host a web page or publish online, be warned: soon your site
might become invisible. Search engines won't index it and web browsers won't
show it. Unless, that is, you agree to attach special labels to your web
pages identifying how violent, sexually explicit or inappropriate for kids
your site is.=20

This was the thrust of today's White House censorware summit, where
President Clinton sat down with high tech firms and non-profit groups in a
private meeting to talk about pressuring the Net community to make
cyberspace childsafe through labels. "We need to encourage every Internet
site, whether or not it has material harmful to minors, to rate its
contents," Clinton said after the meeting. Vice President Gore was there,
too, giving a quick demonstration of how labeling works.=20

Spooked by the threat of a revised Communications Decency Act, high
tech firms are seriously backing labels for the first time. Joining Clinton
in coercing Internet users and businesses to label all their web pages were
Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos. "I threw a gauntlet to other search engines in
today's meeting saying that collectively we should require a rating before
we index pages," Robert Davis, the president of Lycos, told me. Translation:
if you don't play ball, and label your site, search engines will ignore you.=

As will future users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The next
version of IE will default to displaying only properly labeled web pages,
according to Ken Wasch, the president of the Software Publishers
Association. Since many users won't turn off that feature to reach unrated
sites, many large web sites now are facing hefty pressure to self-label.=20

Other high tech firms rushed to join the presidential limelight.
Netscape promised to join Microsoft and include label-reading software in
the next version of its browser. America Online's Steve Case thanked Clinton
for "backing industry's efforts to make cyberspace a safer place." IBM
announced a $100,000 grant to RSACi, a PICS-based rating standard originally
designed for video games but adapted for the Web. The industry giant also
pledges to incorporate RSACi into future products.=20

RSACi, which has been plagued by a number of serious flaws, works like
this: You connect to its site and fill out a form self-rating your site for
nudity, sex, violence and foul language. Then you take that tag, which might
read something like "(n 0 s 0 v 0 l 0)" -- if your site is completely
inoffensive -- and slap it on your web page.=20

One of the problems with RSACi is how it impacts free speech. It gives
repressive governments like Singapore and China the perfect tool to ban
controversial speech online. Right now, the Internet is like a firehose:
it's either off or on. Singapore has only managed to ban around 150 web
sites. But overseas governments may find PICS and RSACi to be the perfect
way to censor the Net. And that's the ultimate irony: the same technology
that was devised to stave off U.S. Net-censorship may be the perfect
censorship tool elsewhere.=20

Then there's the problem of how to apply RSACi to news sites, which it
wasn't designed to classify. RSACi started out as a video game rating
system, and its coarse, clumsy categories -- from "creatures injured" to
"wanton and gratuitous violence" -- are better suited to shrink-wrapped
boxes of Doom than to the archives of, say, To comply with the
system, MSNBC editors would need to review and rate each story -- which is
why the site stopped using RSACi, The Netly News reported in March.=20

Stephen Balkam, the head of RSACi, now says he has a solution. He calls
it RSACnews and says that legitimate news sites can use it to rate just
their home pages without having to review each article. Now, what's a
legitimate news site? The Netly News might qualify, but what about the
NAMBLA News Journal? "People who generate firsthand reports that have been
in some ways verified or structured in a way that gives clear and objective
information as possible about events," Balkam replies. "We will be working
with the news industry to help us develop a criteria." (This, presumably,
means groups that have signed on as supporters, including MSNBC, the Wall
Street Journal, the Well, CNET and Ziff-Davis. I'm told that the White House
also wants to qualify as a "news site" -- even though the information there
is rarely clear and certainly not objective.)=20

Not surprisingly, civil libertarians are screaming bloody murder. They
do have a point. After all, netizens are fresh from a stunning Supreme Court
victory that firmly established that the Net should enjoy the same First
Amendment protections as print publications. Since magazines aren't forced
to sport warning labels, why should the White House pressure online
publications to do the same? And, more importantly, why should the industry
give in instead of standing on principle and resisting all attempts by the
federal government to muzzle online speech?=20

"Some businesses who make their money from people on the Net appear far
too eager to ignore the massive First Amendment protection the CDA decision
gave cyberspeech -- and even more eager to adopt and impose on all of us the
potential sinews of censorship: PICS and RSACi," says Don Haines,
legislative counsel at the ACLU. (This critical attitude may have been what
spurred the White House to disinvite the ACLU from today's summit, then
hurriedly re-invite them after the ACLU put out a press release.)=20

Of course, today's White House summit plays against the backdrop of a
threat from a CDA II. Some members of Congress, such as Sen. Dan Coats
(R-Ind.) have pledged to try again with more legislation. Yet others seem
more willing to compromise. "The Supreme Court has shot down the option that
I worked hard on," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a staunch CDA supporter
who attended today's summit. "They said we can't go that route. I'm
certainly interested in developing other options. I want to put the burden
on pornographers. One of the ways to do that is to have Congress pass
legislation that would make it difficult for people to misrate their web
site." Which Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is about ready to do...