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Fwd: European Commission asks for massive use of blocking on the Web

From: Joseph M. Reagle Jr. <reagle@w3.org>
Date: Thu, 16 Jul 1998 14:12:15 -0400
Message-Id: <>
To: w3c-policy-ig@w3.org, <pics-interest@w3.org>
They unfortunately confuse (third party) rating and blocking.
 >------------------------------- CUT -------------------------------
 >       Official Journal
 >       of the European Communities
 >                                   ISSN 0378-6986
 >                                   C 214
 >                                   Volume 41
 >                                   10 July 1998
 >       98/C 214/08
 >                   Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the
 >                   `Proposal for a Council Decision adopting a
 >                   Multiannual Community Action Plan on promoting safe
 >                   use of the Internet' 
 >------------------------------- CUT -------------------------------

3. The Committee's comments
3.1.    The Committee is, generally speaking, very
favourably disposed towards the Commission's action
plan. The Committee notes that the planned actions
actually attempt to address the problem. Even more
important than this is attempting to change mentalities,
thus curbing excesses. The Committee realizes however
than this is unrealistic.
3.1.1.    The Committee is very glad that the Com-
mission has drawn a distinction in its action plan
between illegal and harmful content.    But the Committee notes that, in translating
this into specific measures, very little attention has been
paid to illegal content in relation to protection of
intellectual property, human dignity and privacy or to
offences relating to national and economic security.
Although these issues are specifically listed in the action
plan under the heading of illegal content, the bulk of
the funding (ECU 20,1 million!) has been reserved for
the action lines aimed at protection of minors (the
awareness actions and the development of material
for users). The Committee considers this a serious
shortcoming and returns to this question in its con-
clusions.    The Committee wholeheartedly endorses the
Commission's conclusion that, in combating illegal
content, the accent must be placed on self-regulation
and application of the law.
3.2.    The Committee wonders however whether, in
dealing with harmful content, relying on public aware-
ness of ways of preventing individuals from coming into
contact with such content is not too limited an approach.
The Committee is not convinced that the technological
solution proposed by the Commission is the most
effective way of tackling a social problem.
3.2.1.    A danger of this technological approach is that,
once a filter system has been installed, parents and
teachers, believing that their children are now in a safe
environment, will see no need for further supervision,
not realizing that childrenwill quickly find any loopholes
in the system. Experience has shown that children's
computerknowledgeoften surpasses thatoftheir parents
and teachers. The Committee also wonders whether the
target group (parents and children) will be sufficiently
involved in the development of the system.
3.3.    Although rating offers great advantages in terms
of the cataloguing and indexing of content, thus making
the Internet more transparent and accessible, this applies
both to desirable and undesirable information. The
Committee would also point out in this connection that
rating might in practice well be counter-productive.
Ratings would be assigned not only to innocuous
content, but also to potentially harmful content, such
as pornography. This would greatly simplify the task of
anyone searching for harmful content on the Internet.
3.3.1.    TheCommitteenotesthat, contraryto previous
assertions, only one major browser programme (Micro-
soft Explorer) currently supports PICS (Platform for
Internet Content Selection), on which rating and filtering
are based. Other browsers, such as Netscape and (the
European) Opera do not. Even if Netscape and Opera
eventually become PICS-compliant, without legal com-
pulsion there will always be programmes which do not
support PICS, enabling a child to circumvent the
restrictions relatively easily. Although the Committee is
in general not unfavourably disposed to the development
of PICS, it does question the claim that PICS will turn
the Internet into an environment free of harmful content.
3.4.    The Committee supports the Commission in its
view that cultural and social diversity based on freedom
of expression is a thing of great value which must not
be compromised by efforts to achieve a safe Internet;
also that, in deciding what is harmful and what is not,
the onus must be on the individual, whether or not
in his capacity as educator. In this connection, the
Committee would point out to the Commission that,
from a technological point of view, it is not only teachers
who can use filter systems to protect children from
harmful content, but also Internet access providers.
This would mean a system which is presented as
`user-empowering' becoming an instrument of control,
actually taking choice out of citizens' hands.
3.5.    The Committee would also point out that the
Internet is more than just the World Wide Web. PICS
offers no solution where chat groups, e-mail and
news groups (discussion forums) are concerned. The
Committee does not consider filter systems based on
rating designed to achieve safe communication to be a
realistic option. The proposed approach offers no
solution for important Internet applications such as chat
and e-mail, which are also used by children.
3.6.    The Committee insistently draws the Com-
mission's attention to blocking as an alternative to
rating. Although perhaps a blunter instrument, it is for
all that no less effective. Blocking programmes do not
require rating by the owner or supplier of the content,
but rely on third parties supplying target group-specific
lists of proscribed expressions. In the USA there are
already dozens of blocking programmes (such as Cyber-
nanny, Surfpatrol etc) which, when installed on a PC,
black out proscribed words and images on the basis of
these lists.
3.6.1.    The distinction between rating and blocking is
an important one, as rating requires an industry-wide
approach (all content suppliers have to participate),
whilst all that is required for blocking programmes is
targeted promotion of innovation. In the case of blocking
programmes itisstimulationofthedemand side(parents,
educators and teachers) which is important, whilst
rating can only be successful if there is an industry-wide,
supply-side approach. In view of the above (see
points 3.3-3.5) the Committee pins its hopes on solutions
aimed at developing the demand for useable blocking
3.6.2.    The Committee does not consider realistic the
argument of human rights organizations that blocking
would restrict freedom of expression, as with pro-
grammes of this kind it is not the disseminator of the
information but the receiver of the message who is
responsible for the correct use of the filter system.
Experience (in the USA) shows that blocking pro-
grammes are a useful tool in the hands of educators who
need a safe environment for the children in their care.
The Committee suspects that one major reason for the
general lack of interest in blocking programmes of this
kind in Europe so far is unfamiliarity with this approach
to the problem, and with the medium.
3.7.    The Committee finds no reference in the Com-
mission's action plan to the distinction between open
and closed networks. Citizens' need for high-quality and
easily accessible information is creating a market for
networks based on Internet technology which may be
part of the Internet but which contain only a small
proportion of the content available on the Internet. In
terms of their diversity and quantity `mini-Internets' of
this kind are thus not comparable with the worldwide
3.7.1.    Providers of such large-scale mini-Internets or
intranets have control and are thus in a position to offer
their customers guaranteed quality of service, not only
in terms of capacity and security but also as regards the
transparency and reliability of the content.
3.7.2.    In closed networks of this kind there is a clear
distinction between information suppliers (firms) and
information users (customers). Private users do not have
home pages. It therefore goes without saying that
intranets of this kind are easier to protect against illegal
and harmful content than the open, worldwide Internet.
The Committee foresees closed networks of this kind
increasingly satisfying citizens' needs for a safe Internet.
Partly in the light of the period for which the action
plan is intended to run, the Committee wonders how
far the proposed action lines take account of this


Joseph Reagle Jr.  W3C:     http://www.w3.org/People/Reagle/
Policy Analyst     Personal:  http://web.mit.edu/reagle/www/
Received on Thursday, 16 July 1998 14:11:51 UTC

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