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An alternative to cinema-style ratings for Web sites

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Apparently members of the British government have been talking with members of the U.S. Obama transition team to come up with some new thoughts on how to censor (protect children from) the Internet.

As with many of the past suggestions, most of these thoughts are not well thought-out, would be nearly impossible to implement, and, if implemented, would cause many more problems than they would resolve.

Take this suggestion as an example:

[Andy] Burnham [Britain’s minister for culture], who has three young children, pointed to the example of a 9 p.m. television “watershed” in Britain before which certain material, like violence, cannot be broadcast, and said better controls were needed for the Internet.

The minister wants new industry-wide “take down times” so that websites like YouTube or Facebook would have to remove offensive or harmful content within a specified time once it is brought to their attention.

Industry-wide would seem to indicate a desire that all web sites follow this standard. All web-sites around the world. Sites that have geographically-specific portals (like,,, etc.) might be able to pull something like this off. However, the vast majority of web sites are too small to have multiple portals in different parts of the world.

Without such portals, such “take down times” would be stupid. If you were to shut down between 8am and 8pm, presumably the preferred times that more mature content would not be available, you would have to decide for which time zone that period applies. If it is the time in London (UTC+0), then Facebook’s more mature content would be unavailable between midnight and noon in San Francisco (UTC+8). Midnight to 8am would probably be the ideal time to allow access to such content, but now it would be unavailable. Additionally, Facebook would be all-access from noon to midnight in San Francisco, leaving all those children access to more mature content.

Regardless of the time of day, forcing non-children to suffer a reduced-functionality Internet is censorship. If I wanted to view something unsuitable for children during these “take down times” in the privacy of my own home on my own computer with no children present, there is absolutely no reason that I shouldn’t be able to do so. These proposed propriety laws would force a prescribed set of morals onto me that I would be unable to avoid. That would be in violation of my First Ammendment rights (and whatever similar laws other countries have).

Additionally, if I worked the night shift, like I used to, my “evening” hours—the times I would most want to relax and enjoy uncensored Internet access—would be in the mornings while children are at school. Similarly, stay-at-home parents may find the most convenient time to surf the net without prying childrens’ eyes on the screen, would be while the children are away at school. And why should singles and people without any young children ever find their Internet access restricted in this way?

Mandated “take down hours” is a fatally flawed idea that cannot work in the real world and must never be implemented.

Here’s another one:

Internet service providers could also be forced to offer services where the only sites accessible are those deemed suitable for children, [The Daily Telegraph] said.

This is laughable, because since shortly after adult content, spam, and other material that some people have objected to started appearing on the Net, people have been trying to filter out the stuff. Expecting ISPs to be able to filter sites any better after a law like this is passed is ludicris. If ISPs are forced to comply or risk punishment, then the only choice they will have is to block all sites with even a slight possibility of having this type of content on it. Say goodbye to Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia.

Think about how the Great Firewall of China is so offensive for blocking sites that go against the government’s wishes. For people in China, the Internet is severely crippled. Even worse, consider Internet users in Iran and several other muslim countries where they attempt this type of draconian limited access. Many of the most popular and useful sites on the Web are blocked by those national firewalls. This plan would mandate that for the U.S. and the U.K. No thank you!

Not only that, it would be mostly ineffective. Look again at the firewalled countries, and see who it is who figures out ways to hack out past the firewall and still access the blocked content… statistically high numbers of those users are children under 18. And the ones who are left without access? Many less technically savvy adults. Again, a useless idea that would cause more problems than it would solve.

There is only one good thing mentioned in this article:

The kind of ratings used for films could be applied to websites in a bid to better police the Internet and protect children from harmful and offensive material, Britain’s minister for culture has said.

Of course, this is ancient news. The PICS standard has been around for around 15 years. It is far more useful and configurable than any existing movie ratings systems.

How exactly would a site be rated? On LiveJournal, Blogger, and WordPress, there are thousands of blogs. Some blogs are kid-friendly, some are exclusively adult, and some fluctuate in between frequently. So, should the entire site be set to R or even X rated because a percentage deserve that rating? At least one church youth group I know would then lose access to its primary communication method for its members.

Rating an entire site and blocking access based on that one rating is dumb. There are just too many variables for large sites.

The PICS standard takes care of that problem by using tags that can be defined for an entire site (e.g., an adult site could rate all of its site as adult with a single tag), or on a directory basis (like the Livejournal example), or an an individual page (for those cases where a general rule might be excepted).

The PICS standard also allows for filtering only the type of content that people find objectionable. Maybe you don’t want your children seeing any pornographic nudity, but find artistic nudity (like found in a museum) acceptable. Or perhaps you don’t want your children exposed to glorifications of drug use or hateful speech. With PICS, the parent can fine-tune the exact level of you allow your children to view and what is blocked.

If PICS is so good, why doesn’t it work? It doesn’t work because (a) not enough site owners bother to rate their sites currently, (b) until recently support for PICS was missing from many popular browsers or it was easily circumvented, and (c) most parents didn’t realize that it was available.

So, instead of implementing a whole new, less flexible, ratings system, the government could require that sites be PICS tagged or else ISPs could block access. It would be easy for sites to be unblocked by adding one line of code to the top of their home page.

Is PICS perfect? No. It relies upon the site owner being honest and accurately rating their site’s content. Some of the ratings are also somewhat subjective. Speech that may seem hateful to some may not seem so to other people. Still, it is better than the alternative of doing nothing.

Still, I don’t like the idea that an ISP should be required to block anything. I think that should be more like caller ID blocking. You can request that your account have blocking enabled, or you can request that it be disabled. It should always be the account holder’s choice, not the government’s choice.

These are all things that could be implemented relatively quickly, and without poorly conceived laws mandating it.

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