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Fwd: Simson Garfinkel on PICS as "global censorship technology"

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>Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 13:41:05 -0800 (PST)
>From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
>To: fight-censorship@vorlon.mit.edu
>Subject: Simson Garfinkel on PICS as "global censorship technology"
>Message-Id: <Pine.GSO.3.95.970205133939.18513C-100000@well.com>

Simson writes: "Simply put, PICS could be the most effective global
censorship technology ever designed." 




Simson Garfinkel

Microsoft Censor 1.0

Explorer's new PICS standard sounds
suspiciously like a censorship tool a
totalitarian government could love

Poke around the "properties" panels of Microsoft's
Internet Explorer, and you're sure to run across
IE's "content advisor."

"Ratings," the panel says, "help you control what
kind of Internet content the users of your computer
are allowed to view." Click another button, and
you'll be able to set the amount of strong language,
nudity, sexual content, and violence that your
computer's users are allowed to see while they surf
the Web.

Microsoft's content advisor is built on the PICS
standard developed last year by Paul Resnick and
James Miller at the World Wide Web Consortium.
PICS, which stands for platform for Internet
content selection, is a general-purpose system for
rating the content of Web pages. In their article,
"PICS: Internet Access Controls Without
Censorship," Resnick and Miller argue that
technological solutions like PICS are what's needed
to stem anti-Internet legislation like the
Communications Decency Act. Because PICS lets
parents program their computers not to display
pornography to their children, they say, those same
parents don't need to turn to lawmakers to keep the
Internet safe for their children.

Resnick and Miller's argument is deeply flawed, but
that doesn't really matter. PICS was readily seen by
some companies as the antidote to the CDA.
Microsoft adopted it, and now working PICS
implementations are sitting on millions of desktops
connected to the Internet.

The first thing to understand about PICS is
that it's a framework for rating systems, not
a rating system in itself. The RSACI rating
framework that's distributed with IE allows
you to rate sex, nudity, and so forth, but
you can just as easily use PICS to rate the
historical accuracy of a document, the
amount of hate speech, or the political
leanings of a document's author. Any of
these rating systems can be described using
the PICS rating service specification, stored
in a file, and loaded into Internet Explorer.

This service tells you how much Simson there is in
any document you might download. You can
download the Simson service file and load it into
Internet Explorer today! Try it.

Once you've created your own rating
service, you need actual ratings as well.
The PICS standard calls these ratings
labels. Labels can be downloaded with a
document, or they can be stored in a
large database at another location. Labels can be
invalidated automatically if the author of a
document makes a change to it after the label is
bestowed. And labels can be cryptographically
signed, so they can't be forged.

Resnick and Miller have done a great job designing
a framework for censorship. I don't think I could
have done it better myself. They've designed a
system that is technically strong, robust, and
scalable. Documents can have multiple ratings, so
the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Imperial
Knights of the KKK can both rate my homepage.
And if some fundamentalist Christian group
launches a gold-label rating service, they can issue
those labels to sites for particular documents -
resting assured the site won't underhandedly try to
add information about evolution to a scholarly
article on Genesis after earning an endorsement.
Thanks to built-in safety measures, such a change
would render the label invalid.

But the ideal behind PICS will be hard to attain.
Internet Explorer implements the censorship
controls, allowing parents to censor what their
children can see, but Netscape Navigator doesn't. So
a horny 14-year-old could either turn the controls
off or go download a more porn-friendly browser.
And besides, most of the data on the Internet isn't
rated, so it can't be filtered out.

The only way to make access-controls effective is to
implement them upstream from the end-user's PC,
at the ISP or on an organization's firewall. That
way users can't simply turn them off. ISPs,
corporate MIS departments, or government
technology officers could program their caching
proxy servers to make a copy of every unrated
document that's downloaded (along with the name
of the person who downloaded it). Then the
servers' administrators might review these
documents at a later time and rate them according
to their own beliefs, corporate policy, or
government standard. If Johnny is looking at too
much porn, or if Tan is pulling down documents
that glorify democracy, somebody might just pay
them a visit.

One of the greatest hopes of the Internet was that,
in the process of opening up their countries to new
commercial opportunities, totalitarian regimes
would also open their people to new ideas. With
PICS built into their network infrastructures,
repressive governments can selectively choose
which information to let in and which to keep out.

Simply put, PICS could be the most effective global
censorship technology ever designed.

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