Andy Oram Reports
CONTENT CONTROL: A FIRST-RATE APPROACH
by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 11, 1999 -- "We're keeping private parts out of Nudity, right?"
"What about the stuff that comes out of those private parts? You know, with crucifixes or Virgin Mary's in it and all that."
"Gotta keep the categories separate. Is it rated because of the nasty stuff or because of the weird religion?"
"I don't know. Set Excretia and Cults both really low and we'll block it two ways."
"Hold it! I just checked the block lists and found that mucus is Excretia."
"Yuk! Not right after breakfast please."
"This is serious; sneezing is offensive in some cultures. If we block Excretia low enough we block anything to do with sneezing. There goes all the health sites, unless they get a high educational rating."
"Can't we define a different Excretia just for us?"
"You aren't clear about the concept. Rating and filtering are different things. There's a single set of rating criteria so all the Web designers in the world know what model to use. All we do is pick a place on the rating scale to choose sites. That's why I'm setting Nudity kind of high, because we can tolerate it more than some folks. There are some places in the world where it's offensive to show your knees."
"Gimme a break, a site's got to be rated if it shows knees?"
"Everybody should be rated. That's what the Bertelsmann Foundation is getting at. Nobody dares to say it out straight, but they want all sites rated. The European Union is falling over itself to make laws about it. Australia's into it too, and the U.S. Congress is trying its damnedest but they haven't figured out how to get around the Supreme Court."
"So the government is telling us what to look at?"
"No, not at all! They're just putting the tools in our hands. But there's got to be one rating system for everybody. We've all got to agree on what a Cult or a Drug is, then we can figure out what to block. Now, if you set Moderate Nudity you'll more or less let through what you see on an American street."
"How about high-class art nudes?"
"Oh, we can put those back in later. We can check for a high artistic rating before we check for the nudity rating, and we'll get to see you-know-whats by Titian."
"That may work for the classics, but some kids are looking for Kahlo or Arbus or somebody else who isn't so likely to be rated."
"You always have to bring up the fringe cases. Really famous art and news sites, the big names like the Louvre and the New York Times, will get on special white lists that exempt them from all filtering. If students can get their information from mainstream sites, why do they need to go farther afield?"
"Now how about this half-naked chick holding a hypodermic needle? You can't tell me that's not obscene."
"The Needle falls under Drugs. You've got to remember your categories."
"I'm not going to block every picture of a hypodermic needle; my kids just got a vaccine two days ago. It's the whole scene; the flesh, the needle, and everything."
"Well, you can block on combinations of categories. A little Nudity, a little Drugs, and the combination is high enough to be blocked."
"You can do that?"
"Sure, I read the PICS specification. It lets you do anything. So long as there's a rating on the Web page. And PICSRules lets you accept art before you reject nudity or accept health sites before you reject drugs."
"Some of this stuff doesn't come over the Web."
"We'll have to throw anybody using chat or FTP off the system. And monitor for unapproved binary data formats."
"Now shut up and tell me what to do. How do we handle this site `Slice'? Is that Sex?"
"No, it's something about gays and lesbians."
"No way. The only person identified as gay is getting the living daylights beaten out of him."
"Keep your pants on; I just checked the PICS headers. It's both Sex and Hate."
"And why can't I get into this Free Whatchamacallit site? Is there a rating category for hopeless causes?"
"I'll tell you why. Because it tells how to load and shoot a .22-caliber rifle, that's why."
"Every 10-year old in this county knows how to do that already."
"But with a target painted on somebody's caste mark?"
"Oh, it's that thing people put on their foreheads, don't ask me..."
"So maybe we can block it under Cults."
"I don't think Hindus are considered a Cult. I don't know about the other side."
"What if we set Cults really low? Is any Jehovah's Witness around to sue us?"
"Nah. And the Indians are fine. The Native American stuff isn't considered religion; it's considered culture. But this site with the .22 isn't rated for Cults."
"Well, we can't set the block too low to shut out violence. History lessons."
"Isn't there some special exemption for history sites, like with art?"
"No, the problem is, with real little kids, they can't tell it's history, to them it's just plain violence."
"So every history site needs to hire a psychologist to rate it?"
"Believe me, I've been giving thanks a thousand times a day, I don't have to do the ratings. Just the filterings. And soon we won't ever have to do that. Third parties will do the filterings. We'll just go to some civic organization and hitch on to their filter."
"Can one of those organizations filter exactly what we want?"
"Well, eventually they'll be a single national standard. We won't have to think at all."
"And will that standard filter out sites about evolution?"
"How can I tell? Nobody knows who sets up the ratings! OK, so we won't put all our eggs in one basket. When filtering services start up, we'll pick and choose from multiple services."
"If we have to evaluate multiple filtering services, how does that keep us from having a weekend like we just went through? We might as well do our own filtering."
(Head popping in the door): "Finish up there, ladies. School is about to open! And remember what our sponsors told us when they bought us the computers -- we've got to get those ads for Abercrombie & Fitch up."
Andy Oram is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and an editor at O'Reilly & Associates.