Ratings for news sites?

The Clinton administration and the Internet industry have joined forces to champion voluntary ratings for Web sites. But would that create a “family-friendly” Web — or one that blocks out quirky, controversial, vibrant voices?

This in-depth look at the controversy over PICS labels appeared in the October 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

When President Clinton challenged the high-tech industry this summer to create a “family-friendly Internet” by cleaning up cyber-smut and other offensive content, newspaper editorials applauded the president’s decision to forgo government regulation and let private industry police the Net.

Few realized that the White House’s “parental empowerment intitiative” would plunge online news publications headlong into the thorniest thicket of free-speech issues in the history of cyberspace — and lead to the news media’s rejection of the president’s proposal when it comes to their own Web sites.

The fate of an Internet self-rating system, however, remains far from settled. And the online news media’s actions in recent weeks have been riddled with more intrigue than a John Le Carre thriller — with the final chapters still not written.

Consider the questions the online news world took up after the president’s call for an Internet ratings system:

• How would Web news sites rate themselves for violence, language and sexual frankness when publishing stories involving war, murder, rape, gang shootings, domestic abuse, hate crimes and teenage pregnancy?

• If an exception is carved out for news sites, which sites would qualify? Where do you draw the line between news and information, entertainment, propaganda and opinion? And who decides?

• If news sites refuse to rate themselves, will they be shut off from a growing number of parents and others who are demanding filters on their Web browsers?

• Finally, will the entire ratings scheme transform the Net from a global democratic village into a balkanized, regulated medium where foreign despots can easily censor any material that strays from the party line?

Questions like these are now being vigorously debated by Net users, who’ve barely had time to catch their breath after the Supreme Court slapped down the Communications Decency Act in June. The Clinton administration, which defended the CDA in the courts, has adopted the approach championed by the Internet industry, which fears another effort by Congress to clamp down on “indecent material” in cyberspace. At the July 16 Internet summit at the White House, the president called on such companies as Netscape, America Online and IBM to give parents the tools needed to shield children from obscenity, violence and antisocial messages on the Net.

“We need to encourage every Internet site, whether or not it has material harmful to minors, to rate its contents … to help ensure that our children do not end up in the red light districts of cyberspace,” Clinton said.

The assembled captains of industry obliged. Netscape indicated it would support Internet ratings in its next browser, meaning that more than 90 percent of all browsers will support Internet ratings. (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3.0 already includes ratings as an option for parents to turn on.) The search engines Yahoo, Lycos and Excite also fell into line, pledging to ask for rating labels for all Web sites on their directories.

The technology that permits Internet ratings — and the linchpin of the industry’s plan for self-regulation — is a labeling language called PICS, or Platform for Internet Content Selection. Operational since last year, it allows Web pages to be rated and blocked according to their content. In theory, dozens of rating systems could be used with PICS — anything from the Christian Coalition rating system to the NOW rating system — but to date, only two groups have devised self-rating systems: SafeSurf and the de facto industry leader, RSAC.

Short for the Recreational Software Advisory Council, RSAC is a computer industry group set up in 1995 to rate video games. In April 1996 its mission was expanded to devise a rating system for the Net. The nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., is backed by such industry heavyweights as IBM, Dell, Disney, CompuServe and Microsoft.

RSAC’s Internet rating system (RSACi) works like this: You connect to its site and fill out a form rating your site for sex, nudity, violence and offensive language. Then you’re assigned a tag and slap it into your Web page’s HTML code. The tag is invisible to anyone looking at your Web page, but the tag can be read by PICS-enabled browsers, search engines and software filtering products like Cyber Patrol and SurfWatch.

Under this rating system, the end user can set a tolerance level of 0-4 for each content category. The higher the ratings number, the greater the restrictions. The ratings guidelines are very specific; for example, using the word “pig” for a police officer qualifies as an epithet, which invokes a level 3 rating for “strong language.” If you adjust your rating filter to screen out sites with strong language, those Web pages will be blocked from your computer screen.

In theory, it all makes for an idyllic, family-friendly, Frank Capra kind of browsing experience.

But a ratings plan originally devised for computer games like Mortal Kombat doesn’t necessarily translate well to online news sites.

MSNBC experimented with self-rating its news site with the RSACi system beginning in late 1996. The task proved cumbersome, with editors having to review and rate each story and fend off complaints by readers who wondered how stories about bombings and murders could rate a “0” for violence. Finally, MSNBC abandoned the effort in March. “The news is not something that can be rated,” explains Debby Fry Wilson, director of public and community affairs for MSNBC. “The news is what it is, and often it is gruesome and disturbing, but it’s based in reality rather than entertainment-based.”

How, then, to deal with the problem of running a news site that’s blocked by filtering software which screens out unrated sites?

A handful of media executives have been addressing that question since Februrary 1996, when Pathfinder editor James Kinsella and deputy editor Maria Wilhelm began mobilizing online publishers and Internet representatives to oppose the CDA and to champion the cause of content providers.

“We were concerned that nobody was representing the voice of the producers, distributors and creators of original content on the Web,” says Kinsella, now general manager of MSNBC.

Kinsella, Wilhelm and a handful of others founded the Internet Content Coalition, a nonprofit trade association that grew to include representatives from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NBC, the Newspaper Association of America, Sony, MIT, Microsoft, Prodigy, Playboy, Ziff-Davis, AdWeek, CMP magazine group, Warner Bros. Online, Wired and CNET, the online computer network.

Wilhelm, now president of the WELL online community, says, “The problem comes down to this.: A parent wants to turn on the ratings system in a browser. At the same time, news sites feel a queasiness in applying a rating scheme of violence, nudity and language to news.”

The coalition originally proposed this workaround: In addition to the RSACi categories of sex, nudity, violence and language, a fifth ratings category called news would give readers the option of allowing in or screening out all news sites; the reader would simply switch the news label on or off. It would be tantamount to a sort of “ratings clemency” for news organizations: They would not have to rate their sites but they’d still be seen by the end user.

There was just one sticking point: What constitutes a news site?

What is news, anyway?

“There is a long tradition of what qualifies as acceptable, standard practices from newsroom to newsroom,” Wilhelm said. She and other coalition members suggested that it would simply be a matter of hammering out criteria that would win backing from a broad cross-section of the news industry.

Indeed, the coalition members seemed so confident that such a consensus could be reached that RSAC’s governing board embraced the “news label” concept and charged the ICC with the task of devising criteria to determine which sites would qualify for the “news” designation.” RSAC went so far as to get Microsoft to give preliminary approval for including the “news label” in the next version of its Internet Explorer Web browser.

In July, RSAC executive director Stephen Balkam envisioned the process by which he saw news organizations rating themselves: “The nytimes.com would click on the RSAC-News Web site, fill out the form and answer questions. That form would then be sent to the ICC to determine whether it meets the criteria. Then it comes back to us. If the criteria are met, we send out the approval. If they’re not, we’ll inform them of that.” Sites turned down for the news designation could appeal to a joint committee of RSAC and the ICC, Balkam said.

Balkam said the RSAC news label would be awarded to “legitimate, objective news” sites, but that webzines focusing on analysis and opinion, like Salon or Slate, would not. “We’ll follow a similar line to television ratings, where soft news programs are rated.”

Publications with extremist agendas needn’t bother to apply, Balkam suggested. “If we came across a publication called the Nazi News, we would certainly, undoubtedly turn them down. Those types of hate-speech publications would not qualify as an objective, bona fide news site.”

In July, the ICC began the herculean chore of trying to set down criteria that would apply to all news organizations on the globe. To broaden the discussion, it sent out letters inviting feedback from a score of other news organizations, including ABC, CNN, U.S. News, Newsday, the Houston Chronicle and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune. (The ICC also solicited memberships, at a cost of $5,000 a year for large organizations.)

The ICC’s missive received a withering response.

In August, Time Inc. came out flatly against creating a standard for news labeling and said it will not self-rate its Pathfinger site, which includes Time, People, Money, Fortune and other publications. “We believe that the First Amendment … would be endangered by any effort to apply ratings to the suitability of journalism,” Time said in its statement.

Graham Cannon, director of communications for Time Inc., says, “We’re not going to draw a line and say, this is news and this isn’t. A phrase like ‘objective news’ is nonsense. Carving out a ‘news’ standard creates an artificial category that impedes the free flow of information and ideas on the Internet. It’s tantamount to censorship. In many ways this kind of private regulation is more dangerous than government regulation.”

“You can’t define news on the Web since everyone with a home page is a global town crier,” adds Joshua Quittner, deputy managing editor of Pathfinder. “Ratings — a software ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of objectionable content — is good for the software business but nonsense for journalism.”

Other critics expressed alarm at the specter of major media organizations sitting in judgment of small, alternative, activist publications. Still others suggested that setting up an official body to determine which Web sites were “bona fide” news organizations amounted to an unconstitutional licensing system for journalism.

Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, publicly distanced his newspaper from the coalition’s actions. If there must be a news label, he suggested that the only acceptable process would be for Web sites to decide for themselves whether they’re a news outlet.

Steve Yelvington, editor of the online edition of the Star-Tribune, agrees. “We can’t allow the government to use political pressure and technology to accomplish what it is forbidden to do under the Constitution: establish a licensing system for journalism,” he told CNet. “The bottom line for me is that anything other than self-nomination is unacceptable. No ‘official’ body ought to be deciding who gets to practice journalism.”

Net users, too, cried foul. When CNet’s editor-in-chief, Christopher Barr, called in his July 21 column for voluntary self-ratings and an exception for sites run by “real news organizations,” he was met with a barrage of negative e-mail from users who saw no need for a ratings system.

“I took a lot of heat for it,” says Barr, who sits on the coalition committee that considered news labels. “But the ICC wants to keep the government out of regulating content on the Internet. As onerous as voluntary ratings are, it’s better than the alternative.”

That, at any rate, was the prevailing view among coalition members until the backlash hit in August.

Says one high-ranking online-news insider: “What happened is that the ICC got on the phone, called a bunch of Web editors and got them to agree to their original plan of carving out a news exception to Internet ratings. But when word filtered up to their bosses at Time and Dow Jones and MSNBC, they said, ‘Whoa, we’re not doing this.’ The more experienced journalists saw the dangers in that approach.”

The ICC quickly began backpedaling. Meeting in New York on Aug. 28, representatives from about 25 news organizations voted not only to drop its plan to create a news label, but it went on record opposing Internet ratings for news sites. The closed-door vote was nearly unanimous.

By the next day, the Wall Street Journal — one of the few papers to rate itself — had removed the rating labels from its entire site.

Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and chairman of the committee that was studying the news label approach, summed up the coalition members’ sentiments this way: “We couldn’t support a body that would rule on who did or didn’t get a news label, so it seemed pointless to support a news label at all. In the end, we decided that none of this stuff really fit very well with the basic tenets of news and journalism. We decided not to rate our sites at all and support the free flow of information.”

Budde seemed somewhat chastened by his boss Steiger’s public rebuke of the ICC’s news label proposal. “I must admit some of us involved early on got pushed a little by the technology rather than thinking through all the implications.”

News sites decide to wait and see

The coalition’s vote puts news organizations squarely at odds with the president’s call for a universal rating system. Were the coalition members troubled by taking a stance opposed to the president? “I don’t know that news organizations have ever taken their cues from politicians,” Budde says.

News organizations, of course, remain free to self-rate their own sites. And some may choose to do that. “In the short run,” Budde says, “the economic interests are weighted in favor of sites that self-rate.”

But it seems likely that most news organizations will adopt a wait-and-see policy. The coalition members did not suggest an alternative to a news label, and while they opposed ratings for news sites, they did not oppose Internet ratings in general.

“It is a perplexing issue for all of us,” says Merrill Brown, editor in chief of MSNBC on the Internet. “As a parent of small children, I’m strongly in favor of tools that let me control my children’s access to certain things. On the other hand, news does not fit neatly into any ratings scheme.”

Budde says one alternative, which would keep Internet ratings alive but allow organizations to decline to rate themselves, is to give users control over which unrated sites to allow into their homes. “Microsoft can craft its brower in a way to allow rated sites plus a list of individual sites determined by the user or by a trusted source: anyone from a cousin to the Newspaper Association of America.”

The problem with that approach, Budde acknowledges, is that well-known news sources like the New York Times and USA Today are sure to qualify, while less mainstream publications like Suck or Brock Meeks’ muckraking CyberWire Dispatch are less likely to make the list.

The problem of a one-size-fits-all Internet ratings system goes well beyond news sites. Thousands of other Web sites face the same dilemma: medical and scientific sites that discuss body parts in clinical detail; art museums that display online exhibits with partial nudity; government sites that contain information about safe sex or terrorist groups, leading to the irony of citizens who set their ratings to an ultra-chaste “0” being barred from entering a government site.

With so many loopholes and drawbacks, the question arises: Are Internet ratings workable? Many critics believe that ratings threaten not just news sites but free speech on Net.

David Talbot, a former editor at the San Francisco Examiner who’s now editor of the prestigious online magazine Salon, says that Internet ratings pose an implicit financial threat to vibrant online journalism.

“Commercial sites like Salon are already under pressure to tone down our writing and subject matter,” he says. “We are obviously not a pornographic site, but we often publish frank discussions about adult subjects. This was supposed to be the very promise of the Web — that communication could be more freewheeling and less mediated by commercial interests. If sites like ours start to get R ratings or whatever tag some in-the-box bureaucrat chooses to slap on us, it could very well scare off advertisers who’ve made an across-the-board decision not to place ads on any sites that don’t have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

“Web ratings are a slippery slope that will lead to a handful of formulaic corporate sites soaking up all the ad dollars, while independent sites with rougher creative edges are financially marginalized. Most will live short and brutish lives and then go out of business. That’s when the Web is dead, in my book. The news media should be joining forces to fight the ratings juggernaut.”

David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., suggests that journalists who are wavering on the issue of Internet ratings consider how they would react if they fell under the ….haven’t raised an outcry against ratings because they would be exempt from ratings, at least at the outset. “If journalists fell under the same restrictions, they’d be screaming bloody murder: ‘What do you mean, I have to put a content tag on everything I write!’ ”

While few, if any, newspapers have come out editorially against Internet ratings, other groups have not been so reticent. The American Library Association opposes any form of intermediated restrictions on Internet content. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. — a lead plaintiff agains the CDA — is spearheading an assault on Net ratings. And in August the ACLU issued a white paper titled “Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?,” a scathing indictment of Internet ratings.

Groups like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, the world’s oldest online community, have taken a firm stand against ratings. “The WELL supports free expression,” says Gail Ann Williams, director of conferencing. “A troubling scent of prior restraint crops up when living conversations are rated. Rating a conversation in progress implies screening the behavior of participants. People need to have places to gather online where they can have the same sorts of free-wheeling conversations they happily and legally conduct at the corner bar, around a dinner table or sitting at a bus stop.”

Scores of “PICS-Free Site” icons are popping up all over cyberspace. Internet Freedom, a free-speech advocacy group, is calling on all Net users to refuse to rate their sites and display a “PICS-Free Site” logo on their home page, reminiscent of the free-speech blue ribbons displayed on the Web to protest the CDA.

Much of the fervent opposition to PICS-based rating systems boils down to one factor: The reader may not be the one making the decision on what material is screened out. And that’s the essential difference between filtering and censoring: Who decides what you can see?

“PICS ratings will have a devastating effect on free speech all over the world — and at home,” declares Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. “The problem is that the filter can be imposed at the level of the individual user, the corporation, the proxy server, the Internet Service Provider, or the national government. This is disastrous, because you can have invisible filtering done at any level of the distribution chain.”

‘A robust censorship tool’

PICS filtering allows self-labeling, where you embed labels into your Web site, but it also allows a third party to rate your site any way it deems fit. A software filtering company, a Christian Coalition ratings board or a foreign government could rate sites according to their own agenda and distribute their ratings online.

“We’re creating a versatile and robust censorship tool, not just for parents but for censors everywhere,” Lessig warns. “It will allow China and Singapore to clean up the Net. It will let companies control what their employees can see. It makes it easy for school administrators to prevent students from viewing controversial sites.”

This is no exercise in academic conjecture. Already, Australia, Japan and Dubai are weighing labeling plans to muzzle the Net by enforcing “national content controls.” At home, third-party intermediaries — from employers, libraries, universities and access providers to the Internet cafe down the street — may soon substitute their judgment for yours. And that’s the biggest poential for abuse: You may never know that a particular article or work or idea even existed.

Says Lessig: “We’ve already seen that the types of judgments being made in filtering technology go far beyond indecent content. It’s about ‘appropriateness’ and ‘community values.’ ”

Indeed, rating and filtering systems are already blocking access to political organizations, medical information and unpopular viewpoints. Sobel warns: “Once voluntary standards are in place, statutory controls will surely follow.”

We already have a recent precedent. Remember those “advisory” labels for CDs that became ubiquitous in the ’80s? Andy Oram, moderator of the Cyber-rights mailing list for Computer Professionals for Software Responsibility — which opposes Internet ratings — says, “Music labels were supposed to be advisory, but we’ve already seen albums excluded from hundreds of stores, and several states passed laws barring teenagers from buying albums with advisory stickers. What started out as a tool for parental empowerment turned into an effective means of censorship.”

Indeed, several “son of CDA” bills have been floated in Congress, ranging from government-mandated labels to criminal penalties for those who mislabel their site. One proposal, the Online Cooperative Publishing Act, was put forward by SafeSurf to ensure that families “may feel secure in their homes from unwanted material.”

SafeSurf, which is lobbying mightily to become the rating system for Netscape, goes well beyond RSAC’s sex, nudity, violence and language categories and five levels of access. Instead, it offers nine categories — including gambling, “glorifying drug use” and “homosexual themes” — and nine rating levels. The company, which started out in 1995 as a two-person parents’ group, recently moved into plush offices on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, backed by large investors.

“A lot of parents we hear from are more concerned with gangs and gambling and neo-Nazis than with Playboy,” says company president Wendy Simpson, who says more than 60,000 people have self-rated their Web sites under the SafeSurf ratings system.

Simpson, who participated in July’s White House summit, doesn’t think free speech is an issue. “The day is going to come when it’ll be just seem to be the natural to do, to rate your own site. To tell you the truth — and I told President Clinton this — I don’t think there is resistance (to Internet ratings). I think there’s a lack of public awareness.”

For its part, Netscape is sanguine about the prospects for global censorship. Peter Harter, the company’s global public policy counsel, says Netscape is “value neutral” on the subject of censorship. “Netscape has responsibilities as a global information company. Other countries don’t have a First Amendment, and we don’t believe it’s our right to force our values down the throats of other cultures and countries. If Singapore or China or other nondemocratic countries choose to set up massive filters to restrict the information flowing into their country, it’s their right.”

So why would media organizations consider consenting to a voluntary rating system that has such potential for censorial abuse? The law of maximum eyeballs. The foremost concern of Web site operators is how to drive traffic to their site. Even those who disdain ratings have acknowledged they may be forced by the marketplace to self-rate if their sites become inaccessible to tens of thousands of potential readers.

To date, of more than a million Web sites, only 43,000 have rated themselves under the RSACi ratings system. That number is expected to grow rapidly as the high-tech industry and the Clinton administration join forces to push the ratings plan.

A Web of ‘sanitized content’?

Sobel and others see a bleak future for controversial online journalism if ratings become widely adopted. “Unfortunately, a lot of people think we need to knock down everything to the common denominator of this mythical 6-year-old who surfs the Net. Do we really want that kind of sanitized content?”

Consider one image, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a young, naked, terrified Vietnamese girl whose village was napalmed by an American jet. Surely, that would have scored high on the violence and nudity rating scales.

“The image of a child running down the road, skin burning with napalm, is horrifying, and potentially traumatic, to a child,” Thomas Leavitt, a computer industry employee, said in an online posting. “At the same time, how many careers, how many idealists and crusaders have developed as the result of seeing the unvarnished truth at a young age?

If Internet ratings catch on, Leavitt says, “No journalist would be free of this conflict of interest between reporting the truth and pleasing the ratings police. Every article, report and photo would be influenced by the question, ‘What rating will this receive?’ ”

In the stampede to protect children in cyberspace, there’s a natural tendency to look for a technological solution. But every solution to date has spawned more questions than answers — and more pitfalls.

“These efforts to rate the Net result from a real misunderstanding of what the Internet is all about,” says Jaron Lanier, a visiting scholar at Columbia University and computer scientist who coined the term virtual reality. “The Internet is not just another medium choice, like television or the movies. It’s the future of all communication that’s not face to face. To say that we’re gong to rate all communication is a criminal idea.”

Lanier, who considers PICS more dangerous than CDA, says ratings will blind us to many of the quirky, idiosyncratic, vibrant voices that make the Internet so astonishing. “The Internet creates a giant mirror where we see the whole of humanity — the bad with the good. If you start creating these narrow rating channels by precensoring opinions and ideas before you’ve even been exposed to them, then our lives will be dimmed and narrower and the sky a little less bright.”

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JD Lasica
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