Rating the Web

In response to recent tragedies and demands that parents have some control over their children's Web surfing, a consortium of international companies is banding together to rate the Internet. But however well-intentioned this effort is, I’m not sure it will work.

Rating systems on the Internet are nothing new. Everyone seems to want to be a rater of content, whether for privacy, nudity or violence. Even the Better Business Bureau has a business-practice code of conduct and stamp of approval for the Internet. Rating systems are so pervasive that there’s even an Internet standard for them: the Platform for Internet Content Selection, usually known as PICS.

If you have software that is PICS compliant, it can read labels on Web pages and decide whether or not to display the content. The original specification was designed to allow many rating services to flourish on the Web. Then the Reader's Digest rating service, for example, could compete with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) service. The PICS label is nothing more than a special HTML tag inserted into Web pages being rated. The tags then point the rating service.

Even though both of the Internet’s major browsers support PICS, individuals would be hard pressed to develop a set of PICS filters because of the standard’s complexity. If individuals are unlikely to develop their own filters, then an alternative is to allow the browser to use a third-party rating service.

Third-party rating services enforce a standard approach to the PICS labels and ratings and then act as an intermediary between individuals and the content they view.

Internet Explorer, for example, comes with a content rating system built in. It uses a scheme developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). You may be familiar with RSAC from the little stickers that software vendors voluntarily put on computer games. The stickers allow software makers to rate their own software in terms of violence, nudity, foul language and other potential evils. It’s likely that you’re less familiar with RSAC’s other initiative: rating sites on the Internet.

RSAC claims more than 100,000 sites have registered with their service to provide PICS labels for content filtering. With the RSAC system, parents or other responsible adults can establish "levels" of sex, nudity, violence or offensive language that is acceptable for their child to view on Web sites. When an individual logs on through any PICS compliant browser only sites within the predetermined levels can be visited. The success of the RSAC system is entirely dependent on Webmasters voluntarily rating their sites and Internet users enabling content protection.

The RSAC ratings strategy got a boost recently when Microsoft, IBM, British Telecom, America Online Europe and others formed the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA). ICRA plans to extend the RSAC system and give an international dimension to what has been primarily a North American system. RSAC will be merged into the new international association, and its ratings will be translated into numerous languages.

While voluntary content rating is clearly preferable to government intervention, it remains hard to imagine how any third-party rating system will succeed on the global Internet. The PICS labels supported by RSAC, for example, provide Web authors with the ability to self-rate their sites for nudity on a scale of one to 10. If any site fails to register with RSAC and provide PICS labels, the site will be invisible to those who have content filtering turned on in their browsers. First of all, that means legitimate sites with no offensive content, but no time to rate their sites, will be invisible. For the company with an initial foray into electronic commerce, being invisible to browsing children might be insignificant, but I’ll bet many companies would be alarmed to know that their site has disappeared from the face of the Internet in homes, schools and libraries using content filtering.

Equally strange is the idea that perverse or obscene content can be rated on a scale of one to 10. Anyone who has watched television in Europe knows that different cultures have different thresholds of concern for things like nudity or violence. I wonder if a Web page, rated as a 4 for nudity in Germany, would get the same rating in Saudi Arabia. Probably not. Making the rating systems sensitive to different cultures probably introduces a level of complexity that will doom the system.

If there’s any lesson here it’s that protecting co-workers or children from abusive material on the Internet will continue to be an important issue. Well-meaning corporations may attempt to rate the Internet, but if only a tiny percentage of the Internet’s content is voluntarily registered, the system is doomed. This underlines the key to ensuring that those surfing the Web are not hurt by lurid content. Active intervention and education by parents, teachers and supervisors is the rational way to provide appropriate content control. A single rating system fails to reflect corporate, cultural or geographic diversity. The Web, after all, is a very diverse place. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.