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NYT on PICSRules

Aus der GILC - Nachrichtenbörse

>>From the front page of today's New York Times Business section.
>It cites the GILC letter to W3C:
>January 19, 1998
>Rules for Filtering Web Content Cause Dispute
>In a private vote by e-mail a few days before Christmas, a group
>of about 200 computer scientists and engineers endorsed a set of
>rules that could govern some of the most fundamental ways people
>around the globe will get electronic information -- and will be
>prevented from getting it -- in years to come.
>Members of the group, the World Wide Web Consortium based at the
>Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say they were simply
>agreeing on a technical standard to allow much-needed filtering of
>the Web's vast store of information.
>They were building a tool, they say, not passing a law. And in
>that spirit, little notice was taken of their action, which
>revolved around the arcane technical specifications and lines of
>computer code that define the Platform for Internet Content
>Selection or, in the trade, PICS.
>But a growing number of civil libertarians argue that these
>technologists are in some ways acting as an unelected world
>government, wielding power that will shape social relations and
>political rights for years to come. In cyberspace, these critics
>assert, computer code has the force of law.
>The filtering system, a technology for defining what parts of the
>Web will be accessible from a particular computer or group of
>computers, was originally conceived as a way to head off
>government regulation of speech in cyberspace.
>After the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act
>last June, declaring it an unconstitutional restraint of free
>speech, such technology was widely seen as the best alternative,
>because it would enable parents to shield children, with a few
>clicks of a computer mouse, from information deemed harmful.
>But in an increasingly vigorous debate, civil-liberties groups are
>condemning the PICS technology as a mechanism for censorship,
>while Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and director
>of the consortium that approved the standard, is defending it as a
>force for social good.
>Critics argue that repressive governments can use the filtering
>technology as a tool to screen political speech and that in the
>United States the most likely application will effectively block
>much of the constitutionally protected expression that has made
>the Web a particularly democratic communications medium.
>"This is a technique that is designed to enable one party to
>control what another can access," said David Sobel of the
>Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The most palatable
>formulation of that is parent-child, but the fact is it also
>allows a government or an Internet service provider to take on
>that parental role and decide what anyone downstream is going to
>be able to see -- and no steps have been taken to prevent that."
>Microsoft Corp. has already incorporated an early version of the
>content-selection technology into its Internet Explorer Web
>browser. But free-speech advocates fear that the rules endorsed
>last month will speed up the technology's adoption by making it
>far easier to use.
>Which is exactly the point, the defenders of the filter standard
>say. At a recent meeting of Clinton administration officials and
>Internet industry representatives in Washington, Vice President Al
>Gore stressed a need for the information industry to provide
>parents with easy technological fixes.
>Berners-Lee, who invented the Web at the CERN laboratory in Geneva
>as a seamless world of information accessible from any kind of
>computer, insists that the benefits of the "PICSRules," as the
>recent addition to the standard is known, outweigh its drawbacks.
>"I appreciate your concerns," he wrote in response to a statement
>from a civil-liberties coalition, the Global Internet Liberty
>Campaign. "Whilst I tend personally to share them at the level of
>principle, I do not believe that the PICSRules technology
>presents, on balance, a danger rather than a boon to society. I
>can also affirm that the intent of the initiative is certainly not
>as a tool for government control, but as a tool for user control,
>which will indeed reduce the pressure for government action."
>Whatever the merits of the opposing claims, the controversy
>underscores the exceptional influence that technologists wield in
>formulating the rules that govern cyberspace. It also presages
>increasing tension between the architects of the Internet and the
>people who use it, as profound policy implications of technical
>decisions also loom for privacy and intellectual property.
>Traditionally, the technical rules that allow computers to perform
>tasks like sending and receiving electronic mail or documents were
>developed by organizations that represented the institutions,
>companies and individuals that most used the medium.
>But at a time when the global computer network is no longer the
>private preserve of scientists and academics, the procedures of
>groups like the one headed by Berners-Lee -- the World Wide Web
>Consortium, known as W3C -- are being called into question.
>Indeed, many of the civil libertarians who oppose the filter
>technology initially touted it as an alternative to government
>interference. More recently, they have concluded that speech-
>regulation features woven into the Internet may be as threatening
>to free expression as legislation.
>"The W3C is taking on a quasi-governmental role, and to the extent
>that the standards it adopts become the basic standards of the
>Internet, it will have more influence than most national
>governments will have," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director
>of the American Civil Liberties Union. "These are not mere
>technical standards that engineers should be establishing. This
>platform raises fundamental questions about free speech, and that
>debate should occur in public."
>In a recent interview, Berners-Lee portrayed members of the group
>as social activists conscious of their legislation like power and
>struggling to exercise it responsibly.
>"Most of the people who are working on the Web are not doing it
>because they have a frantic urge to program," Berners-Lee said.
>"They're doing it because they have a vision of how society should
>be improved. The difference is, now people can make social things
>possible by creating technology, whereas before, to make social
>things possible, really all you could do was make laws."
>Ultimately, how effective such standards are will depend on
>whether the major Internet browser companies apply them. Thomas
>Reardon, Microsoft's program manager for Internet architecture,
>and a member of the World Wide Web Consortium's advisory council,
>said the company was continuing to evaluate whether to include the
>technology in future versions of its browser.
>"We're certainly looking at which users get the most from it, and
>we're also aware of the downsides of government abuse, especially
>in foreign situations," Reardon said. "The company is going
>through a process of trying to look at it more formally."
>The World Wide Web Consortium's 231 members include most computing
>and telecommunications companies that have significant stakes in
>the Internet, some government agencies and several nonprofit
>groups. Membership fees are on a sliding scale, from $5,000 to
>$50,000. The group's stated goal is "to realize the full potential
>of the Web."
>The challenge in keeping the group apolitical, Berners-Lee said,
>is to create ways of achieving social goals that are "policy
>The platform selection technology, for example, is not itself a
>rating system but a labeling system that enables Web publishers to
>rate themselves or to be rated by third parties.
>Labels are essential to the growth of the Web, proponents of the
>filter standard argue, because while browser software cannot now
>look at the millions of sites on the Web and determine which
>contain violence or nudity, it can sort by looking at labels that
>describe the site's content.
>Under the model endorsed last month, anyone or any group -- from
>Good Housekeeping magazine to the government of Singapore to the
>Christian Coalition -- could create a ratings system, and parents
>could select the one that best represented their values. Aside
>from any benefits to children, widespread adoption of labeling
>would allow sorting by quality of information according to
>particular sources or other criteria.
>A problem is that the Web is vast and rating is labor-intensive.
>Civil libertarians say that the most likely outcome in the United
>States will be dominance by a few ratings systems that will
>probably exclude much of the material on the Web. Nor, they point
>out, would there be anything to prevent Congress from passing a
>law requiring the use of such systems.
>More frightening, the critics say, the new version of the filter
>specifications allows third parties to block all material
>originating from a particular Internet address like a political
>organization, a country or a group of nations.
>The European Commission has expressed interest in using the
>filters to enforce a policy to block illegal content. China, which
>recently announced new Internet censorship rules, and Singapore
>are widely cited as likely to use the filtering technology to
>impose censorship.
>Paul Resnick, one of the inventors of the content selection
>system, has created a sort of incubator at the University of
>Michigan, where he is an associate professor in the School of
>Information, to encourage the development of multiple ratings
>"In the information age, issues of how information flows are going
>to have a huge impact on commerce, society and politics," Resnick
>said. "That's why this debate is happening. I think we as
>technologists have a special responsibility to educate policy-
>makers, to educate the public about what's possible. I think we
>also have a responsibility to invent new technologies that meet
>public goals with the fewest negative side effects.
>"But," he added, "if I go over a certain boundary and say what the
>public's goal ought to be, then I think I'm overstepping my bounds
>and abusing my power."
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>   World Wide Web Consortium
>   Electronic Privacy Information Center
>   Microsoft Corp.
>   CERN
>   Global Internet Liberty Campaign
>   American Civil Liberties Union