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Press group refuses to join Internet rating scheme
The Ottawa Citizen
A group of major news organizations took the digital high road last
week. The group members -- which include Time, CNN, the New York
Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press -- said they
would allow their online editions to be rendered invisible to some
Internet users rather than conform to a rating system that screens
material dealing with sex or violence.
"We support open access to information on the Internet," the group
said in a statement. "And we will not rate our sites."
That such a proclamation would be necessary, that it would be hashed
out in a tense meeting that was closed -- oddly, given its agenda --
to reporters and that it would be considered an important step forward
by many of the executives participating is itself a commentary on the
uncertain state of the free press on the Internet.
But the electronic news publishers left unresolved the more baffling
question of how to wedge such a seemingly routine commitment to the
U.S. constitution's free-speech guarantees into the architecture of
cyberspace and the cultural politics of the United States in the late
The bind that Internet news providers find themselves in began with
the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling earlier this summer that the
Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional. The court found that
the law, which banned the transmission of indecent material to minors
over computer networks, was an overly broad restriction on speech --
in part because existing technology would allow parents to control
their children's access to such material.
Eager to head off regulation, the online industry expressed enthusiasm
for various rating systems at a meeting convened by the Clinton
administration after the decision. Microsoft and Netscape, which
together control the market for the browsers used to navigate the
World Wide Web, agreed to incorporate a standard for ratings in the
next release of their software.
Theoretically, the standard (known awkwardly as the Platform for
Internet Content Selection, or PICS) would allow any entity from Good
Housekeeping to the Spice Girls to create a rating system. The browser
would recognize all of them, and parents could choose the one that
best fit their world view, or at least the lens they wanted their
children to see through.
But so far, the only major group to use PICS has essentially adapted
to the Web a rating system designed for video games.
Under the Recreational Software Advisory Council system, sites rate
themselves on a scale of one to four for nudity, sex, violence and
offensive language. The council, a non-profit association of
entertainment and computer companies, performs random checks to make
sure sites are representing themselves correctly. Parents can set the
level of each category that they wish to screen for, and,
significantly, unrated sites are blocked out.
So far, about 40,000 of the Web's nearly one million sites have used
News sites, however, have for the most part found the ratings either
inapplicable or abhorrent. "The rating of content, particularly in the
area of violence -- to tell people whether they should or shouldn't
read about war in Bosnia -- takes news and turns it into a form of
entertainment," said Daniel Okrent, editor of new media at Time.
It is perhaps not surprising that an entertainment-based rating system
would be incapable of describing the vast quantities and qualities of
information on the Internet. Religious organizations and government
agencies are also reportedly unhappy with the Recreational Software
Advisory Council's limitations.
But the problem is more than just a given rating system. It is
inherent in the technology -- or at least the purpose it is being used
to achieve. Because to screen out certain material, like sexual
images, every site has to be labelled in some fashion.
"In the real world, you don't know what you're going to get before you
get it," said Paul Resnick, one of the creators of PICS. "We're trying
to create an online world where you do know what you're going to get,
and once you set that as your priority, you have to start classifying
To accommodate the concerns of news sites, the Recreational Software
Advisory Council has proposed a "news" label that would rate by
category, not by content. But that raises the question of how and who
would define which sites would bear the designation.
The ratings group had appealed to the Internet Content Coalition, a
loose alliance of online news organizations that organized last week's
meeting, to serve as a monitoring body.
The idea was denounced by several attendees, but they did not offer a
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