IT: Essay: ICRA - Censoring The World, Round 2

Seth Finkelstein
Fri, 22 Mar 2002 06:16:07 -0500

[Archived at ]

	I've just skimmed through the recent releases of the
"Internet Content Ratings Association",

	Frankly, I'm frightened in a way I haven't been for a while.
This is the return of a rival approach for governments to censor the net,
a system which I had thought was dead and buried.

	Let me see if I can explain in a way that cuts through the
pages of technical documents and the noise of press-release hype (I
never put much credence in talk of parents - as a simple statment
of fact, if it works for parents, it works for governments). Has
anyone ever consider how difficult it is to censor the Internet?  I
have a saying - "It's a tough job to censor the world". But bright,
smart, people are applying every bit of their technical skills to this
daunting task.

	There are two basic architectural approaches, which have
competed for acceptance. The first one is the private blacklister.
It works by having a business make up a huge blacklist of forbidden
material, This is the current censorware system, euphemistically
called "filtering". It's run by companies who distribute the
blacklists, for a fee.

	However, there is another approach, the "classification" system.
In this scheme, a central organization applies various labels which
indicate how freely the material will be allowed to be distributed - ranging 
from "available to everyone" to "banned". The MPAA ratings are an 
instance familiar to Americans, but that's not a simple example. While 
the MPAA ratings are technically mere private designations, they function
as an industry-government collaboration (this is already a complex topic).
Basically, "self-regulation" in place of government regulation (and 
backed by a fear of government action if the "self" regulation system
is too lenient) is still a content regulation system - not movie reviews.

	However, other countries, for example, Australia, don't fool
around with privatizing the administration of the ratings system. There's
the "Office of Film & Literature Classification"
which runs the "classification" system.

	This general model, based on ratings/classification, is favored
by many European and similar governments. An earlier proposal from the
UK can be read at "R3 Safety-Net"
(dates from September 1996).

	Around 1997, there was notable competition between proponents
of these two net-censorship approaches. To make a long story short, the
censorware system (private blacklists) got to market first, with an
implementation that functioned well enough to sell. While the
"classification" proponents got mired down in legal and technical problems.

	But some governments just aren't comfortable with the censorware
system. They have large censorship, err, "classification", bureaus, and
laws about ratings optimized to that system. The blacklist companies
sometimes aren't very sensitive to the particular priorities of
certain governments (i.e, France or Germany versus Nazi sites). So the
European Union has been working on ratings-based censorship for a
while. See

	And they're back! That's the real news with ICRA. It's not
just a ratings system. It's the second round of attempting to have a
workable global ratings/classification-based censorship system.

	You see, it's HARD to censor the world, with the conflicting
needs of several governments. There's a detailed mechanism to deal with
the technical problem here. It's called PICSRules, and is a veritable
"censorship cookbook". See

	The examples there are just full of censorship goodies:
          11 Reject any HTTP URLs from the and
 hosts, and all URLs that specify a host whose
          ip address has 18 as its first eight bits (these are the
          addresses corresponding to

[Don't like 'badnews', it disappears! Or "sites outside the country"]
          13 Specifies that documents which have an educational rating of 1
          in the KP rating system (defined above) will be allowed.
          Documents which have no rating under this rating system, or
          which have a rating other than 1 will be examined according to
          the rules which follow.

[Now, replace that with "accepted news organizations" from the HomeOffice
rating system will be allowed to pass]

          14 Specifies that documents which have a violence rating of 3 or
          more in the KP rating system (defined above) will be blocked;
          explanatory text is provided for user-agents to display to
          users: after decoding, the text is: Blood's a "scary" thing.
          Documents which have no rating under this rating system, or
          which have a lower rating will be examined according to the
          rules which follow.

[Just imagine: "The government has determined this to be a terrorist site!"]

	Note this PICSRules document is from 1997. Again, this
approach was one which was put forth then, lost out, and is now being
revamped and revived. See the references to PICSRules in the
"Notes for software developers" in the "ICRAfilter" section of

	The cultural flaws of the ICRA ratings system are just a small
part of the problem. The real danger is the attempt to get all the
classification bureaus, blacklists, and whitelists, functioning in a
censorship system. So that there can be a specification where, per the
above "censorship cookbook", a mandate can effectively be put in place
of "Ban these sites in general, but give a special exemption to this
list of government-approved news organizations, but this other list of
subversive sites is to be banned even if they claim to be news sites,

	That's been too costly for Western governments to implement. So far.

Seth Finkelstein  Consulting Programmer  sethf[at-sign]
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