BISSEX: All the News That's Fit to Filter

The Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law broadly banning "indecent" content on the Net, is dead -- overturned as unconstitutional. Its legacy is alive, however. "Ratings" and "filtering" technology, promoted as an alternative to regulation, are now heading for the mainstream.The most well respected of these technologies is PICS, a versatile model designed for multiple rating systems from multiple sources. (In fact, PICS can accommodate such things as Library of Congress classification or qualitative evaluations from individual readers; for now, however, it is used primarily for naughty/nice filtering.) Anyone, from the National Organization for Women to the Christian Coalition, can create a PICS-based rating system; the organization can define its own criteria, have its representatives rate sites accordingly, and offer its ratings to the public.Rather than a beautiful democratic multiplicity of rating systems, however, right now the number of well supported PICS-based systems is exactly one. It primarily addresses sex, violence, and strong language. Adapted from an existing video game rating system by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, this system is known as RSACi ("i" for "Internet"). It is supported in MicrosoftÕs Internet Explorer Web browser; other manufacturers plan to support it in the near future. With RSACi filtering turned on, all sites crossing an adjustable line in any of the categories are blocked by the browser. All unrated sites are blocked as well.Imagine you produce a Web-based news site. You try to evaluate your news with RSACi and its game-derived questions: "Does the aggression against realistic objects result in disappearance without damage?" What? And besides, shouldnÕt news about violence be rated differently from violence itself?So you decide you wonÕt use ratings. Sounds good. But your site lives on advertising dollars. If your pages arenÕt rated, they will be blocked by browsers with RSACi filtering turned on. Every person blocked from your site is money lost. Your boss will hate that.This logic is leading news organizations to call for a separate rating category for news sites; RSAC has proposed one called RSACnews. Legitimate news sites could bear this label in lieu of separately rating every single story.Surprisingly, instead of running to claim this badge of legitimacy, many online editors want nothing to do with ratings and filtering. Sounds too much like licensing, they say. Why should any central authority decide what is news? The framers of the American constitution knew well the British history of restraints on the press, which began with compulsory licensing and got worse from there. To prevent the reinvention of these travesties, freedom of the press was codified in our First Amendment.The Constitution limits the powers of the federal government, however, not the free market. The ratings game is as free-market as you can get -- if you donÕt count the fact that it was created under the threat of state censorship. ItÕs a confusing and tricky issue. I said as much during a phone conversation with Maria Wilhelm, president of the prominent online service The Well and one of the founding members of the Internet Content Coalition (ICC)."Just because an issue is tricky doesnÕt mean you should avoid it," warns Wilhelm. The ICC, indeed, is tackling this head-on. The group is bringing together dozens of online "content creators" for a late August meeting on this very subject. I fish for a preview, but Wilhelm has no foreknowledge; if anything, the group sounds predisposed to healthy debate. Critics fear that this meeting will create a unified front of big media producers who will confer "news" status only to one another, leaving small-time sites in the dust. My fantasy is that the ICC members will come out of that meeting unified in opposition to ratings. Even better, they could endorse a model that goes beyond RSACi and uses more of the potential of the PICS framework, moving from mere electronic rubber-stamps of purity to more useful information-sorting labels.To complete their seizure of the moral high ground, they could declare this new rating model available to anyone who wants to use it, with no certification or licensing process. This show of strength would lead to easier navigation of the info-seas even as it stemmed the tide of censorship. And that would really be news.***Sites in my SightsFor a group that is in the forefront of the news ratings battle, the Internet Content Coalition has a pretty quiet web site (www.netcontent.org). More substantial is the World Wide Web CoalitionÕs information on PICS and rating systems (www.w3c.org). Those curious about RSAC can learn more at their site (www.rsac.org).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingFed up with ratings entirely and ready to become an anti-PICS radical? Read this strong ACLU statement on the subject (www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/burning.html) and call your congressperson. Would a mandatory rated-G Internet be OK with you? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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