Ratings System Attracts Critics, Few Users

Rohit Khare (khare@w3.org)
Thu, 24 Apr 1997 16:18:51 -0400 (EDT)


Ratings System Attracts Critics, Few Users

By Kathleen Murphy

The Platform for Internet Content Selection, technology that allows
third parties to develop ratings systems for Web content, is touted by
opponents of the Communications Decency Act as an effective safeguard
for protecting children from indecent material online.

But with relatively few organizations developing ratings systems
based on the platform, and under attack from both the political left
and right, the effectiveness of the technology is being called into

And now PICS--introduced under the auspices of the _World Wide Web
Consortium_, of Cambridge, Mass., in 1995--is returning to its roots
as a high-profile industry response to the outcry over Internet
pornography and Congress' subsequent attempt to regulate the Net.

The timing is critical. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule
this summer on whether the CDA, passed in February 1996, is
constitutional. The fate of PICS also has implications for online
privacy and digital signatures.

The CDA prescribes fines and prison terms as long as two years for
those who display indecent material online to people under
18. Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who is an author of the CDA,
said PICS doesn't work.

"Aside from the ludicrous proposition of allowing the pornographer to
self-rate," Coats said in a statement on the Senate floor in February,
"there is no incentive for compliance." But supporters of PICS, such
as Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and
Technology in Washington, D.C., contend that part of PICS's value is
that third parties can use it to rate sites and can apply filters as
they see fit.

"Congress would like to give people the impression that they can
protect kids just by passing a law," Weitzner said. "Congress should
stop pretending that it can fix this problem and look more closely at
how it can give support to these ratings systems." But even some
free-speech advocates have found fault with PICS--though for exactly
the opposite reason that Coats doesn't like it.

"I think PICS is the devil," said Larry Lessig, a law professor at
the University of Chicago. "The problem is that the technology permits
the filtering to be done at any level in the distribution chain."
ISPs, corporations, countries, or individual users could censor
information and restrict free speech too broadly using PICS, Lessig

PICS has won acceptance from the Recreational Software Advisory
Council, SafeSurf, and Net Shepherd Inc., all of which have developed
PICS-compliant ratings systems. Several online services, vendors of
filtering software, and corporations have also embraced the
platform. _IBM_ recently introduced a PICS-compliant server. Internet
Explorer is PICS- compatible.

"As PICS develops, it's going to enable consumers to have a lot more
control over the content they have access to and their kids have
access to," said Chet Dalzell, spokesman for the Direct Marketing

Dalzell said privacy concerns, not just content criteria, will
encourage consumers to filter access.

But mass acceptance of PICS is nowhere in sight."The technology
community has stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. It's up to
values organizations to do their part now to use the technology," said
Paul Resnick, chairman of the PICS working group at the World Wide Web

Reprinted from Web Week, Volume 3, Issue 11, April 21, 1997