By Rachel Chalmers The US-centric internet ratings and filtering service RSACi, originally developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, is to be revamped for international consumption and re- launched sometime next year, according to a New York Times report. The overhaul of RSACi follows a controversial proposal to encourage self-regulation of net content. The proposal […]
By Rachel Chalmers
The US-centric internet ratings and filtering service RSACi, originally developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, is to be revamped for international consumption and re- launched sometime next year, according to a New York Times report. The overhaul of RSACi follows a controversial proposal to encourage self-regulation of net content. The proposal was published by a non-profit subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG at a net content summit in Munich earlier this month. It has already come under heavy fire from the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.
The trouble with implementing internet ratings is that three groups of stake-holders cannot agree on what to do. Parents want to protect their children from content they consider offensive. Most governments want to be seen to be protecting children without overtly restricting free speech. Businesses, on the other hand, don’t want any regulation at all. The Bertelsmann Memo makes clear what is at stake for commercial content providers: the threat of costly-to-implement government regulation. Better to adopt voluntary mechanisms than to leave the matter to the lawyers.
It is in the best interest of industry to develop self- regulatory mechanisms, the writers of the Bertelsmann Memo insist, as they enhance consumer confidence and are ultimately supportive of business objectives. More people will migrate online when they are confident that their families will not be exposed to harmful content. The model the writers go on to propose is a three-tier layer cake of filtering mechanisms. The plate upon which the entire structure rests is the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) and the XML-based Resource Description Framework (RDF) which is destined to replace it. Both PICS and RDF are World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards.
The Bertelsmann Memo proposes to divide the labor of rating net content between first and third parties. First parties – the content providers themselves – are asked to describe their own content with a standard set of descriptors. This basic vocabulary constitutes Layer One of the cake. For Layer Two, third parties are asked to assemble templates which combine and rank combinations of content descriptors in ways that match their particular values and beliefs. Finally, a system of black and white lists added to the ratings constitutes Layer Three. The purpose of Layer Three is to allow third parties to offer more contextual judgements of individual sites to fine tune the system, the writers explain. While we think that Layers One and Two offer more diversity than any previous rating system, the addition of Layer Three should greatly enhance the system’s flexibility.
In the Bertelsmann Memo’s three-tier system, a porn site could describe the adult nature of its content, a Christian group could build a template to screen that kind of content out, and churches or schools could download that template, a white list, or any combination of the two. Content providers don’t have to decide what’s inappropriate, and those who are deciding what to filter out should be able to rely on a consistent descriptive language. The Memo also tackles what many have seen as a grave flaw in Australia’s internet censorship scheme, which makes ISPs responsible for content hosted on their networks. There should be no criminal responsibility of mere access and network providers for third parties’ illegal content transmissions taking place in real-time through their networks, the writers urge.
None of this has dissuaded civil liberties groups from criticizing the Memo and its suggestions. The ACLU warns that such a ratings system, even though voluntary, may help governments that wish to restrict internet expression. We said it then, we’ll say it now and we’ll keep saying it even after software programs try to block us, said ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt, proposals like this will transform the internet from a true marketplace of ideas into just another mainstream, lifeless medium. Paul McMasters, the First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, concurs: No proposal would be getting serious consideration if the threat of government censorship didn’t exist, he writes. There is only one reason for a rating system: to enable filtering software that targets controversial or unpopular speech. Whether an internationalized RSACi can win more adherents than the Bertelsmann Memo remains to be seen.