A Letter to Mensa About PICS

By Michael Sims jellicle@inch.com

Mensa, the organization for people of high IQ, recentrly announced it would require its members to rate their Web pages using a PICS-compliant rating system. Michael Sims wrote to the organization to tell them this is a very bad idea.

Subject: PICS rating requirements by Mensa Cyberspace Committee
Cc: m-grapevine@lists.us.mensa.org
Reply-to: jellicle@inch.com
Date: Sun, 10 Jan 1999 21:54:31 -0400

Dear Mensans,

It has come to my attention from two different Mensa members that the US Mensa Cyberspace committee has recently imposed a requirement for Mensa members to rate their webpages with a PICS-compliant rating system in order for their pages to be linked from the American Mensa homepage. I've been informed as well that a great many Mensa members have complained about this requirement, so many that a separate mailing list was required to handle the discussion, and that the upset members are being told that the decision is final and irrevocable, and that it complies with Mensa's policy that "Mensa does not hold any opinion or have, or express, any political or religious views."

As someone who has been fighting PICS in the political and social arenas for nearly four years now, I can say that requiring PICS ratings is most certainly an expression of a political and social position. PICS ratings are supported by a wide variety of pro-family, usually religiously-affiliated, pro-censorship groups; the same groups who support legislation such as the Communications Decency Act. Ratings are opposed by a wide variety of civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Library Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and many others (references follow).

Indeed, the ACLU devoted an entire paper to the issue; "Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? How Rating and Blocking Proposals May Torch Free Speech on the Internet" is available at http://www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/burning.html.

In December 1997, a "Children's Internet Summit" was held regarding the issue of sexually explicit material and children. The organizers of this conference (several right-wing congressmen such as Senator Dan Coats, R-IN) invited a great many pro-censorship groups and a great many filtering software (censorware) vendors to speak; civil liberties groups were not invited. President Clinton and VP Gore proclaimed their support for internet censorship efforts, and as a result of the summit, several major search engines promised not to index pages which were not rated. However, the resulting controversy immediately caused those services to back away from the promises made at the summit. As a result of this "summit", the Internet Free Expression Alliance was formed, in part to combat the government practice of "herding" people into rating their web pages (which could not be mandated in the U.S., due to the First Amendment).

Currently, Australia and the European Union are looking into rating systems based on PICS to be used to censor the entire populace of nations. Electronic Frontiers Australia is currently struggling with a government which already requires ratings on *all* non-internet media and wants to expand the concept to the internet with PICS - of course, if your rating is too high, you aren't allowed to publish at all and face many years in jail if you do. Simson Garfinkel calls PICS "the most effective global censorship technology ever designed". Lawrence Lessig bluntly says,

"This will have a devastating effect on free speech all over the world -- and at home. To my mind, PICS is the devil."

Joseph Lasica spells it out clearly: "Ratings today, censorship tomorrow." The ALA says, "Labeling is an attempt to prejudice attitudes and as such, it is a censor's tool." Safesurf, the software company which created the rating system which Mensa recommends, has proposed a law here in the U.S. which would provide criminal penalties - both jail terms and fines - for misrating a web page.

In August 1997, a group of online news companies signed an agreement citing censorship concerns and refusing to rate their news sites. Signers included the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, MSNBC, CNN Interactive, New York Times, Time Incorporated, ABCNews, Reuters New Media, the Associated Press, BusinessWeek, the Houston Chronicle, Times Mirror, Nando.net, the Magazine Publishers of America, and the National Newspaper Association.

PICS is the subject of global controversy. Mensa requiring members to rate their pages with PICS is equivalent to the American Medical Association refusing to link to the pages of doctors who perform abortions. It may not say so in so many words, but it's a very strong political statement nonetheless. Censorship on the internet is a global human rights concern and Mensa should be well aware of what it is getting itself into when it takes this stance.

Further, I have to correct some misinformation that was spread in the letter sent out requiring members to rate their pages. The letter implies that PICS ratings will somehow facilitate parental control of what children can see on the internet. This is not, in fact, true. To be effective, rating systems must screen out the vast majority of content which is not rated at all. The only effect of rating a page is to *allow* someone to read the page who otherwise might not have been able to. All pages which aren't rated are not viewable by someone using any PICS rating system, and thus can hardly be a concern to parents. Indeed, Mensa's pages, rated in the SafeSurf system, are not viewable by people using the RSACi PICS system, which is the most widespread one.

The best protections for children on the internet are education and parents, not software. It is my suspicion that the Mensa Cyberspace Committee has read some literature about the great and wonderful nature of PICS, has not educated themselves about the controversial and censorious nature of perjorative labelling systems, and has issued an edict which they now find it difficult to back away from.

Normally, I might urge Mensa to take a stand against censorship. However, given Mensa's charter, I simply urge you NOT to take a stand of any sort. A Mensa requirement to rate one's web pages is a requirement that members proclaim they are in favor of global censorship of the internet, which is strongly at odds with Mensa's statement that "American Mensa does not dictate the design nor the content of your personal home page." American Mensa should carefully consider whether it wants to even maintain the rating on its home page, much less require all members to rate. Mensa cannot honestly state that it holds no political views while making political statements such as these.

If anyone has any questions about the political, social, or technical aspects of PICS, please feel free to contact me at jellicle@inch.com. This message may be forwarded in its entirety to Mensa mailing lists or other areas where it would be on-topic and promote discussion. I've copied this letter to a number of people in the Mensa governing committees who seem affected by this issue, see below. Thanks for listening.

-- Michael Sims
The Censorware Project

References, in no particular order:


Michael Sims is a New York City-based activist and charter member of The Censorware Project. He maintains the group's site at http://censorware.org.