Ratings Systems for the Web

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In our book, we supported self-rating of Web sites as good citizenship. Not long after the book came out, I had serious second thoughts about this; one of the first essays distributed to the SLAC list was entitled Why I Will Not Rate My Site.

Now, the issue of ratings systems has come to the fore again. The Supreme Court threw out the Communications Decency Act in June, and the same organizations that defended the CDA-- Focus on the Family, Enough is Enough, The American Family Association--are out there arguing for ratings systems. President Clinton has supported this idea with some vague words about "a V-chip for the Internet." And Senator Murray of Washington, among others, has introduced legislation calling for mandatory self-rating and criminal prosecution for mis-rating of Web sites.

This week in New York, a group of news organizations got together in New York and agreed that they would not rate their sites. This was an act of courage, possibly a major crack in the facade, as some of these organizations had previously been favorable to ratings. But how do you rate the news? It portrays violence every day, as it covers wars and revolutions around the world. Are photographs of starving children or massacre victims pornography? Do you want to prevent your children from reading news on the Web?

Let's distinguish three possible approaches to ratings: third party ratings systems, self-rating, government rating. In the third scenario--unlikely-- the government picks everyone's rating. Let's discard that one and talk about the other two.

In a third party rating system, the American Family Association puts up its own server, which rates the Net according to the AFA's values. So do the People for the American Way (progressive-left organization), the Christian Coalition, the AFL-CIO, etc. etc. You use software which checks the server of your chosen organization to determine the acceptability of a Web site. All of this is free choice based on a free market; you are paying for the software; the government is nowhere in the picture. No-one has placed a rating on their own site; and anyone who chooses can avoid ratings systems entirely, choosing not to use any of the third party servers available.

By contrast, self-ratings force us to a one-size fits all system. How do I select a rating for my own pages? When I wrote that I would not rate my own site, I was concerned about my Auschwitz Alphabet pages, which contain explicit descriptions of human medical experimentation and upsetting photographs. Do I rate them the same way as Sexyweb.com? Will we create a rating system which is so fine-tuned it contains gradations for "Mindless violence", "news violence," and "Violence with redeeming social value"? If so, what parent is going to want to fine-tune browser software with hundreds of available choices?

This problem exists before the government even gets involved--but is much exacerbated by the passage of laws against mistaken self-rating. Suppose I give An Auschwitz Alphabet the equivalent of a PG rating, and then a parent in Tennessee complains to the local prosecutor? Government enforcement of "voluntary" ratings will certainly engender these kinds of nightmares.

If I refuse to rate my site at all, most of the software available under a self-ratings system will block it along with all other unrated sites. (Earlier this summer, there was a report, later denied, that the next release of Microsoft Internet Explorer would come configured, out of the box, to block unrated sites. Ironically, Microsoft's MSN is one of the organizations now refusing ratings.) Thus, I will eventually give up the majority of my monthly audience of more than 20,000 people.

The problem with ratings is similar to the problems with computer software in general-- you can have systems that are easy to use, or systems that are powerful, but not both. An easy to use ratings system would contain five or six ratings, like the Motion Picture Association of America scheme. But such a system would not have the precision necessary to distinguish An Auschwitz Alphabet from Sexyweb.com.

A system capable of making very fine distinctions between works of entertainment value appealing only to prurient instincts and works entertaining for other reasons, between works of news, historical, cultural, scientific and artistic value, would have to contain thousands of gradations. And who is qualified to judge? The work of rating literary works has been going on since there have been literary works--we call it "criticism". If you can't get, say, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin et al. to agree on the value of a particular work, who else can you trust to do so? Will you trust the author himself, and then clap him in jail if his ego leads him to mis-rate?

About a year and a half ago, a free speech activist in Canada carried out a successful April Fool's Day joke: he circulated a file calling for the rating of all library books with a bar code system. Many people took the mail seriously and reacted with horror. Not all of them were equally horrified about rating the Net. But what is the difference? Why is An Auschwitz Alphabet sacrosanct if printed on paper, but subject to rating if posted on the Web?

Last night I watched a discussion on a show called The Web, a CNet production which runs on the Science Fiction channel. A representative of Enough is Enough debated the Webmistress of Sexyweb.com. The moderator asked smart questions, but the battle over ratings was lost at the moment the producer picked the guests. The owners of X-rated services are among the only content providers who will be happy to self-rate, and who will pick the most stringent possible ratings, to protect themselves against obscenity prosecutions if possible. They will still make their dollar. It is the rest of us--the amateur providers of serious, sometimes controversial content on the Web--who have the most to fear from a government-backed ratings system.

If you want to support third party ratings servers on the Web, go right ahead. I'll ignore their existence. But I remain convinced that if we see a "voluntary" self-rating system backed by government enforcement, my only choice will be to refuse to rate my pages. And to disappear from the screens of most of my readers.

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