A coalition of anti-censorship groups is urging the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to reject the most recent addition to an Internet content rating standard.
The proposed Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) Rules 1.1 "go far beyond the original objective of PICS to empower Internet users to control what they and those under their care access," the Global Internet Liberty Campaign says in a letter to the W3C.
GILC is concerned that proposed filtering rules would allow entire domains to be blocked and prohibit access to URLs based on specific keywords or character strings included in the Web address. GILC also believes that repressive governments will use the PICS settings to control access citizens have to particular Web sites and keep people from communicating with others.
"The original intent of PICS was to be an empty vessel into which a multiplicity of rating systems would be poured," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a GILC member organization.
Instead, it has become clear that there is no way to develop multiple rating systems for such a vast, ever-growing network, and that the proposed ratings create the potential for repressive governments to more easily block access and control communications, he says.
The GILC and various of its member groups, including the ACLU, have been particularly critical of end-user filtering software and search engines, arguing that such products actually weed out material that is not objectionable and often stop access to content that is educational. PICS ratchets up that approach by allowing upstream control, Steinhardt says.
The PICS rule changes, devised by a W3C working group, set language for writing profiles that serve as "filtering rules that allow or block access to URLs based on PICS labels that describe those URLs," according to the proposed rules. Those filtering rules will be easy for repressive governments to implement and that level of control isn't something that should be promoted, GILC argues.
"We know that already the governments are talking to various sources, usually U.S. sources, about filtering, rating and blocking," Steinhardt says.
According to a statement on the W3C Web site, PICS "was originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet, but it also facilitates other uses of labels, including privacy and software code safety."
The W3C was created to develop common protocols for the Web and is an international industry group headed by Tim Berners-Lee. The consortium tries to distance itself from the politics involved in PICS, Joseph Reagle, W3C policy analyst, says.
"We know these issues are contentious. I personally am concerned about possible abuse of the technology, however the W3C is not the right organisation to settle these issues," Reagle says. "What we try to do is put a neutral technology in place. There is no purely neutral technology, so what we try to do is present multiple options."
The PICS rules provide programming language to allow computer users to block or restrict access. Reagle says that PICS rules do not suppress language and that's an important distinction to make between the W3C recommendation and legislative attempts like last year's Communications Decency Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional because it was too vague in its attempts to restrict speech on the Internet.
Thus far, criticism of PICS has been aimed at the infrastructure, but there is no way to know how the rules will actually be used until they are put into place. The W3C does not comment on when the consortium is likely to accept or reject proposals. But Reagle has sent an unofficial response to the GILC regarding its objections to PICS.
The W3C's concern is to keep the Web worldwide, he said, and that means it must consider protocols that take various cultures and cultural sensitivities into consideration. China already has pushed ahead to create its own national intranet and Reagle said that the W3C doesn't want to see that sort of fragmentation, so filtering rules are important.
"I the end, I think the fact that speech isn't suppressed (by PICS) is a good thing," he says.