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PICS rating scheme: who needs it?
02-09-98 | Alan Docherty, Editor

PICS and rating systems are censorship technology argues Alan Docherty

To the sober observer the internet is a remarkable technological development. The ability to access computers and files around the world and to communicate at the speed of electronic mail is no less than a communications revolution. However opportunities provided by such technology stand in contrast to the anxieties about the Net. More often than not the Net is seen as a problem. Once perceived to exist only at the fringes of society, pornography, racism and political extremism are now regarded as widely available.

In August 1996 Scotland Yard wrote to 140 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) instructing them to remove 133 newsgroups containing illegal material. The ISPs suggested that there were more effective methods of regulation. While accepting it was necessary to censor material on the Net there was discussion as to how best this could be done. The acceptance of the need for censorship by ISPs was central to the establishment of the Internet Watch Foundation. Originally called SafetyNet, the Internet Watch Foundation was set up to 'hinder the use of the Internet to transmit illegal material, particularly child pornography and encourage the classification of legal material on the Net in order to enable users to decide for themselves what they and their children will see.' (Internet Watch Foundation Press Release, 3 December 1996)

One of the first initiatives of Internet Watch was the introduction of a hot-line for reporting 'potentially illegal' material on the Net.

At the time of writing, Internet Watch are about to announce a new rating system for web pages and newsgroups to be used in conjunction with PICS.

The mechanism for filtering material was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's World Wide Web Consortium as a technical standard. The principle behind PICS is that computers can process labels in the background of digital works and shield users from undesirable material.

The supporters of these schemes make a number of claims that are worth looking at in detail.

PICS is value neutral. According to Paul Resnick and James Miller 'PICS - Internet Access Controls without Censorship' (Scientific American, March 1997), 'PICS provides a labelling infrastructure for the Internet. It is value neutral'. Indeed, PICS is value neutral, until it is applied, then it becomes a mechanism for censorship, not allowing users to access certain parts of the Net. Ostensibly designed to enable parents and teachers to control what children access on the Net, Resnick and Miller's value neutral standard has become a mechanism for treating adults like children. PICS is premised on the patronising idea that people need protection by a guardian. Resnick and Miller's assumptions that labels have no social impact are naive.

The second claim is that implementing PICS and rating systems is voluntary. Currently there are no laws enforcing PICS (although many governments are considering making it mandatory). However there is considerable moral pressure in favour of regulation, regardless of legislation. This is one of the unspoken roles of bodies like Internet Watch - to promote a climate of responsibility and caution. As the panic about porn on the Net becomes more exaggerated there is increasing pressure for third party rating schemes. PICS enforces restrictions on the Net, restrictions that Net users never know about, without agreed definitions as to what is acceptable and what is not.

There are no agreed standards and no right to appeal. In Britain the 'voluntary' status of PICS was backed by a warning from Ian Taylor, former Science and Technology Minister, who said that if self-regulation was unsuccessful then 'the police will inevitably move to act against service providers as well as the originators of illegal material'. (Department of Trade and Industry Press Release, 14 August 1996)

There is a defensive presumption that co-operation with the authorities is better than confrontation. This is neatly articulated by Stephen Balkan, Chief Executive of the leading rating company RSACi: 'We need to demonstrate that the web can regulate itself.' (RSACi Call to Action, Press Release, 8 February 1997) It accepts fears about the Net at face value and urges self-restraint. The implication behind these demands is that if we cannot show self-control then someone else will have to do it for us. This 'don't rock the boat' attitude avoids the central issue at stake, that of censorship.

The most misleading claim made is that PICS and rating systems have nothing to do with censorship. According to Paul Resnick, chair of the PICS working group of the World Wide Web Consortium: 'Rather than censoring what is distributed, as the Communications Decency Act and other legislative initiatives have tried to do, PICS enables users to decide what they receive.' (Scientific American, March 1997).

In the at-risk, play it safe 1990s the issue of censorship is more complex. Censorship no longer takes the form that it once did. Once censorship was almost always imposed by the government or other elected authorities, the government appointed censor, the Home Secretary or gagging orders imposed by a court. The new forms of censorship are more dangerous, at least the old forms were enacted by a government that was accountable to the people. The developers of PICS, RSACi and the staff of Internet Watch are not publicly accountable. When PICS is put into operation there are no agreed standards and no right to appeal.

Ours is a political culture which values safety and conformity above experimentation and risk. Anxieties about the impact of violent or pornographic images on viewers are stronger than ever and become exaggerated in discussions about the Net. Fears about humanity and the Net have been transformed into a moral crusade calling for responsibility and self-regulation. This crusade must be resisted in all its forms.

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