July 31, 1997

The Censor Police

RATINGS TODAY, CENSORSHIP TOMORROW

The Net industry is rushing to embrace ratings systems for the Web. The technology will help parents keep their kids away from porn. It can also help anyone censor anything.

The following article appeared on Salon.com on July 31, 1997.

BY JOSEPH D. LASICA

Afew years from now, when we look back at what crippled the Internet as a global forum for the free exchange of information, at least we’ll know it was done with the best of intentions.

Who, after all, could oppose Internet ratings if they create a “family-friendly” online world?

And so, to make the Net safer for kids and to avert government regulation, the Internet brain trust has banded together to push rating, filtering and labeling technology — a private-sector techno-fix to cleaning up the Net. President Clinton has signed on and has used his bully pulpit to jawbone companies that were wavering on the issue. And the news media have covered the president’s initiative with the gusto of a pep rally.

With all this firepower behind them, ratings are coming to a Web site near you — in fact, to all Web sites, if proponents have their way. And a panoply of would-be censors — from foreign despots to home-grown zealots and pandering politicians — couldn’t be happier.

“What’s happening now is a move toward the privatizing of censorship,” says David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “It’s likely to destroy the Internet as it’s existed up till now.”

There are a great many ironies here, but the greatest irony is that the censorship will be self-imposed — we’re doing it for the sake of family, parents, children. In truth, Internet ratings are being driven by the changing business interests of the major players involved.

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