PICS and Censorship

By Mark Newton

An open letter to the World Wide Web Consortium

About two years ago, when PICS was announced on w3's web site, a comment was included in the description of PICS to say that it was (a) content neutral and (b) not *really* intended for censorship, as it could just as easily be used to select wanted material instead of blocking unwanted material.

Since that time, much criticism has been levelled at W3C by the civil liberties community. As Governments world-wide have proposed mandatory adoption of state-blessed PICS label bureaux for their citizens, W3C has been panned for deliberately and methodically setting out to create a world-wide censorship infrastructure. The comment on the web page to the effect that PICS could also be used for content searching didn't seem like much of a defence for the system when one considered that every single implementation of PICS in a browser used it for censorship. More lately, even that self-professed defence by the instigators of PICS has disappeared, with the deletion of the "could be used for finding useful content" reference from the recently revised PICS introduction web page.

Governments such as Singapore and China have adopted PICS for their entire populatation base, to the detriment of their citizens' abilities to exercise their freedom to speak and freedom to read. Meanwhile, W3C was criticized for unleashing a devil which only the powerful could control, which disenfranchised individuals everywhere, for defining a spec for a proxy server which could be controled by a national Government, religious group, or ISP. I will not cover all the arguments here (I could not); suffice to say that they are all cogently presented at and, in addition to ACLU's "Is Cyberspace Burning" position paper.

Personally, I started out as a PICS supporter. I saw that if it was properly rolled out it could be used to empower users everywhere. I wrote a treatise at which described how PICS could keep everyone happy by allowing, say, fundamentalist christians to block what they want to block by running their own label bureaux, politicians to block what they want to block, parents to select which bureaux to use to control what they wanted to block on behalf of their children, and civil libertarians to enjoy an Internet where they didn't have to worry about anything they wanted to read being blocked. I'm sure this is the scenario that PICS' original designers intended.

However, that treatise was based on the supposition that PICS would be rolled out by the user community. Since then, it has actually been rolled out by *Governments.* As previously mentioned, Singaporean and Chinese citizens have no choice but to use it, the Australian Government has seriously suggested it as a means of controlling the Internet in Australia, and the US Government has spent the last seven months applying pressure to various industry segments to present mandatory PICS to US citizens as a fait accomplis.

The fact of the matter is that PICS has not been rolled out fairly. Despite the lofty intentions of its original designers, it has been compromised and corrupted by governments wishing to restrict and control speech, rather than being adopted by parents voluntarily and honestly wishing to control their childrens' access to the Internet.

As a result of that corruption, I wrote a preamble to my tretise which described my mistake in promoting it in the first place. As a result of that corruption, I now know that PICS exists purely and simply for censorship, not for user empowerment.

Yesterday I found out about PICSRules, and my heart was chilled. Although W3C appeared to be honest and well-meaning when PICS was first proposed, no such attributes can be ascribed to the instigators of PICSRules. PICSRules cannot be used to *select* content; It exists for one purpose only: Censorship.

PICSRules will make censorship simple on a breathtaking scale. Public libraries, companies, Internet Service Providers, and entire *countries* will fall victim to its sinister effects. The ONLY thing PICSRules can be used for is to permit someone with power to restrict and control information flow to the powerless, using arbitrary and unlimited metrics for defining the extent of that restriction.

As a proposed standard, PICSRules is designed to appease the bookburner; The tyrant; The dictator; The fictitious "community values" contrived by well-meaning but conservative politicians. It is designed as a slap in the face to researchers, the lovers of fine art and literature, parents who wish to control their own parenting style instead of giving it up to the state or faceless corporations, political activists, and the individual who wishes to enjoy his legal and (until now) unassailable right to enjoy whatever he likes in his own home even if it offends people who aren't watching.

PICSRules is a direct rebuke to the concept of toleration in an egalitarian society: It means that the phrase, "I don't believe in what you say, but I respect your right to say it," must become an impossibility, since anything the proxy-server administator doesn't agree with will be prohibited.

I like to believe that when PICS was first proposed, its designers had no idea about how it would be received; They didn't know that governments all over the world would lap it up and force it on their citizens. They didn't know that Governments would either suggest or implement PICS-based solutions to restrict their citizens access to political, artistic, cultural and religious views which the Government found offensive, as has happened in China and Singapore.

Censorware was also in its infancy: PICS' designers had no idea that programs like CyberSitter, CyberPatrol and X-Stop would block sites such as the National Organization for Women, Project Gutenberg, The Ethical Spectacle, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the entire MIT Athena cell (featuring thousands of individual web sites!), and countless other sites blocked either out of dim-witted ignorance or by means of a premeditated implementation of a political agenda. W3C members would not have had forwarning of an ABC News story last week which showed an unnamed censorware product which blocked out all references to "Hot Sex" in an Altavista Search, but which also reduced an Altavista listing of tens of thousands of sites matching the term "Bill of Rights" to a list of 7!

W3C cannot now claim that innocence of vision: If PICSRules becomes an official W3C standard, it is *guaranteed* that Governments will use it to subdue and control their citizens. And, it is *guranteed* that that control will be arbitrary and capricious, blocking tens- or hundreds of thousands of meritous web sites even where governments attempt to moderate their use of their blocking policies (I don't trust a government to get a better track record than CyberPatrol or X-Stop, after all).

If the standard is approved, W3C will become the free speech equivalent of electric shock baton manufacturers, who market their products as devices to be used for riot control by police with the full knowledge that they will actually be used to torture political prisoners in third world countries.

As a citizen of a country whose government is giving serious consideration to mandatory PICS labelling, I implore you to reject the PICSRules proposal outright. If you do not, I can guarantee that my Government will co-opt it into a system which will be used to directly and irrevocably harm me, personally, without regard for my intelligence, my ability to decide what to read for myself, my lust for unfettered access to knowledge, or any other consequence of my general leanings towards free speech.

I urge to you drop further consideration of the PICSRules proposal, permanently. PICSRules cannot enhance the level of content or discourse on the net; Its very design is intended to LOWER the quantity and quality of material by prohibiting access to WWW resources which could otherwise be used to enhance content. Those of us with a passion for freedom of speech see PICSRules as nothing but a weapon pointed at entire societies, with PICS as the ammunition. I implore you: Please don't give our Governments an opportunity to pull the trigger.