PICS rating systems

Conclusion

Every web page should be self-rated with a detailed, easy-to-use content rating system that helps parents and teachers filter content without resorting to mass censorship. I think SafeSurf currently has the best system and that everyone should use it. I also think that other rating systems, especially third-party programs and ratings, should not be used.

What is PICS?

The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) is a specification from The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) originally created to help control what children access on the Internet. In general, users (parents and educators) buy programs that read the labels placed on content by the content creators and third-party rating services; then based on the settings selected by the user, the program filters or displays the content.

Self-rate now!

As a web content creator, you should rate your own material. The reality of the situation is that parents, teachers, and politicians want a way to regulate access to adult material.

The movie industry in the United States has been very successful at self-rating for years. If the Internet community does not self-rate, then third parties will fill the void. These third parties could easily be your government. Do you want your government rating your content?

Example

Here is an example of the element used to self rate: <META http-equiv="PICS-Label" content='(PICS-1.1 "http://www.classify.org/safesurf/" l r (SS~~000 1))'>

Meaning:

  1. PICS-1.1 is the standard used.
  2. The URL is the location of the specification for this exact rating system.
  3. The number 1 says that this rating applies only to this page.
  4. The letter R is short for rating.
  5. (SS~~000 1) is SafeSurf’s rating that says “All Ages.”

Adult, until proven innocent

Assume that the content of your site requires parental guidance until you thoroughly verify that it does not. Things as commonplace as legal drug use, chat rooms, violent animated characters (like video games), or a semi-nude artistic picture can all be items that would require some parental guidance for a seven-year old.

Do not assume that because the topics your website deal with are not obviously controversial that they are appropriate for all audiences.

Support all rating systems you agree with

If you happen to agree with more than one rating system, use more than one. Not all applications use all rating systems; therefore, it is prudent to use as many rating systems as you agree with.

Browsers

Content tab

Internet Explorer and Netscape both have systems for loading the rating file for any PICS rating system. Therefore, it is not necessary for a parent or teacher to purchase additional software when using one of the above rating systems.

Artistic context

Many people want to use PICS applications to filter nudity, violence, strong language, and many other topics presented in a non-artistic context. I think that rating systems that do not categorize artistic content separately from non-artistic content are irresponsible. I will not support these rating systems.

Self-rating systems

The SafeSurf Internet Rating Standard

SafeSurf is more detailed and objective than the other rating systems mentioned here. All categories (nudity, violence, etc.) include a mechanism for rating the content as artistic or literary.

They also have a section that allows the content creator to recommend an appropriate age range for the content. Why other rating systems do not recognize the difference between a 16-year-old and an 8-year-old in their rating systems is unknown to me.

I strongly recommend the SafeSurf rating system.

ICRA

The Internet Content Rating Association was formerly a part of The Recreational Software Advisory Council. Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator come with the ICRA rating system (also called RASCi) rating file pre-loaded. This makes it the most widely available system today.

As of this date (14 January 2004), The Internet Content Rating Association does not have a context setting for their “Language” section; however, they do have a mechanism for separating artistic (as well as medical, educational, or sport) nudity and violence. Nevertheless, I will not use their rating system until the language in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is categorized differently than that of an 18-year-old’s personal webpage.

Safe for Kids Web Rating System Defunct by 2004

I think their system is overly simplified. Some parents find nudity objectionable but not expletives and vice versa; since this system has only three levels, it is difficult for a user to set a level of filtering that will accurately reflect the user’s desires.

Third-party rating

I think that it is impossible for any third-party rating system to provide a service that is worth buying or supporting. The economic model of these companies is flawed. With hundreds of thousands of domains on the Internet, it would take a lot of money to rate and continually review all of the websites.

Furthermore, they often block access to websites that do not have mature content. The lack of resources makes it economically unfeasible to review their ratings in such a way as to minimize mistakes.

Until third-party rating companies find a new economic model, I think web producers should avoid supporting their products.

SurfControl

To read more about CyberPatrol (a product of SurfControl), I recommend reading this article from The Censorware Project.

SurfControl owns a number of products that attempt to categorize potentially offensive or objectionable websites into 12 categories. This is a third-party service that rates websites without the consent of the content creators; there is no self-rating system associated with any of their products.

I strongly discourage submitting your website to this company for inclusion in their filters. There are not enough explicit definitions for artistic content; furthermore, I think the categories they have defined are discriminatory. In particular, I object to the following:

  • The “Violence/Profanity” and “Sexual Acts” categories do not make exceptions for artistic content.
  • The “Satanic/Cult” category is offensive in the extreme. From their website: “A cult is defined as: A closed society, often headed by a single individual, where loyalty is demanded, leaving may be punishable, and in some instances, harm to self or others is advocated.” Using this definition, I could easily argue that Judaism, Catholicism, and sects of Islam are all cults. This category is a direct assault on freedom of religion.
  • SurfControl will place “pictures or text advocating… unlawful political measures” in the category “Militant/Extremist”. This is too vague. In China, the Falun Gong religious movement is illegal. If a group in Atlanta advocates practicing the religion, will their site be filtered? What about groups that advocate non-violent illegal resistance? Why are they placed in the same category as groups that advocate violence?
  • The Alcohol & Tobacco will not filter “Pub and restaurant sites featuring social or culinary emphasis, where alcohol consumption is incidental”, but will filter “sites in which alcohol or tobacco products are the primary focus.” I think that separating the neighborhood liquor store from the pub that is next to it is absurd.

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