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09 April 1998

Netscape's Support for PICS

On the day a leading British teachers' trade union warned that children are just 'two clicks' away from pornography on the Internet and demanded protection for children and their own members, Chris Ellison, from Internet Freedom, claims that Netscape's latest plans for a revision to its Web browser will have a major impact on free speech

Netscape Communications has being having a hard time of it recently. It started life as one of the major champions of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web and developed one of the world's leading browsers in the form of Netscape Navigator. Since then, however, Netscape's fortunes have taken a fall. The main challenge to its profits has come from the likes of Microsoft who distributed a comparable browser - Internet Explorer - for free. Since then Microsoft and Netscape have been vying to produce the most sophisticated Web browser.

Netscape's latest plan to reverse its plummet from grace is to support PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) censorship technology under the name of NetWatch. Netscape has been contemplating incorporation of the technology into its browser ever since Microsoft built it into Internet Explorer. In an attempt to present itself as a responsible and respectable software company, Netscape has now confirmed its plans to adopt PICS in revision 4.05 to its browser which will be introduced in Germany by the end of the month. English versions will be available later in the year. Netscape's Cindy Roberts explains: "We believe PICS is the future way to do content-filtering. But there are not very many Web sites that have PICS labels now [so] we want to go out and evangelise sites to adopt PICS ratings."

The Platform for Internet Content Selection works by embedding tags into Web pages to rate the material according to various categories such as "sex", "violence", "nudity", and "bad language". Recently the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation proposed that this should be extended for a European audience with categories such as "intolerance". Browsers are then configured to refuse access to material above certain levels in each category.

There are two common myths about the technology. The first is that it is merely a "ratings" mechanism rather like the age classification of films or the star counts in some television guides. Unlike ratings, the censorship technology involves embedding hidden tags in the material itself so that it can be filtered or blocked. The classification is not designed to help the user so that they can make a more informed decision about viewing the material. It is designed to prevent access to it completely. In fact the only thing that the PICS technology really has in common with film classification is that unrated material will become increasingly difficult to view. Already four of the leading Internet search engines have said that, if PICS takes off, they will cease to list unrated material in searches. As Cassidy Sehgal from the American Civil Liberties Union describes it, many Web sites will simply "drop off the Net".

The second myth about the technology is that it empowers the user to decide what types of material they wish to view. Aside from the obvious point that NOT blocking material in the first place must surely give users the greatest decision-making capacity, the reality is that it empowers everybody EXCEPT the user. The vast majority of users currently access the Web through their workplaces, universities, libraries or Internet cafes. Places where, on the whole, users have no control over the settings of the installed software. Would-be censors would suddenly find their greatest dream realised. If all Web material is suitably tagged for filtering, systematic censorship of the Net will become a practical possibility. In a climate where responsibility is the watchword of modern business, it's only a matter of time before your own Internet Service Provider takes the next step. Rather than closing down the sites of individual customers that meet with their disapproval, they can just cease to transmit material according to their preferred ratings criteria.

Having started life promoting the Web for its positive contribution to realising humanity's potential, Netscape is set to destroy the very freedom it helped develop. With Netscape evangelising PICS, the only freedom left to Net users will be the freedom to decide whose tool for censorship (Microsoft's or Netcape's) they prefer to adopt.

Internet Freedom's website can be found at

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