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questions raised about wc3 authority

From: Kelly Pierce <kelly@ripco.com>
Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 09:17:42 -0600 (CST)
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
Message-ID: <Pine.SV4.3.91.980119091603.24912F-100000@foley.ripco.com>

>From the New York Times 
      January 19, 1998
Rules for Filtering Web Content Cause Dispute

     I n a private vote by e-mail a few days before Christmas, a group
     of about 200 computer scientists and engineers endorsed a set of
     rules that could govern some of the most fundamental ways people
     around the globe will get electronic information -- and will be
     prevented from getting it -- in years to come.
                           Credit: Gordon Studer
     Members of the group, the World Wide Web Consortium based at the
     Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say they were simply
     agreeing on a technical standard to allow much-needed filtering of
     the Web's vast store of information.
     They were building a tool, they say, not passing a law. And in that
     spirit, little notice was taken of their action, which revolved
     around the arcane technical specifications and lines of computer
     code that define the Platform for Internet Content Selection or, in
     the trade, PICS.
     But a growing number of civil libertarians argue that these
     technologists are in some ways acting as an unelected world
     government, wielding power that will shape social relations and
     political rights for years to come. In cyberspace, these critics
     assert, computer code has the force of law.
     The filtering system, a technology for defining what parts of the
     Web will be accessible from a particular computer or group of
     computers, was originally conceived as a way to head off government
     regulation of speech in cyberspace.
     After the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act
     last June, declaring it an unconstitutional restraint of free
     speech, such technology was widely seen as the best alternative,
     because it would enable parents to shield children, with a few
     clicks of a computer mouse, from information deemed harmful.
     But in an increasingly vigorous debate, civil-liberties groups are
     condemning the PICS technology as a mechanism for censorship, while
     Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the
     consortium that approved the standard, is defending it as a force
     for social good.
     Critics argue that repressive governments can use the filtering
     technology as a tool to screen political speech and that in the
     United States the most likely application will effectively block
     much of the constitutionally protected expression that has made the
     Web a particularly democratic communications medium.
     "This is a technique that is designed to enable one party to
     control what another can access," said David Sobel of the
     Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The most palatable
     formulation of that is parent-child, but the fact is it also allows
     a government or an Internet service provider to take on that
     parental role and decide what anyone downstream is going to be able
     to see -- and no steps have been taken to prevent that."
     Microsoft Corp. has already incorporated an early version of the
     content-selection technology into its Internet Explorer Web
     browser. But free-speech advocates fear that the rules endorsed
     last month will speed up the technology's adoption by making it far
     easier to use.
     Which is exactly the point, the defenders of the filter standard
     say. At a recent meeting of Clinton administration officials and
     Internet industry representatives in Washington, Vice President Al
     Gore stressed a need for the information industry to provide
     parents with easy technological fixes.
     Berners-Lee, who invented the Web at the CERN laboratory in Geneva
     as a seamless world of information accessible from any kind of
     computer, insists that the benefits of the "PICSRules," as the
     recent addition to the standard is known, outweigh its drawbacks.
     "I appreciate your concerns," he wrote in response to a statement
     from a civil-liberties coalition, the Global Internet Liberty
     Campaign. "Whilst I tend personally to share them at the level of
     principle, I do not believe that the PICSRules technology presents,
     on balance, a danger rather than a boon to society. I can also
     affirm that the intent of the initiative is certainly not as a tool
     for government control, but as a tool for user control, which will
     indeed reduce the pressure for government action."
     Whatever the merits of the opposing claims, the controversy
     underscores the exceptional influence that technologists wield in
     formulating the rules that govern cyberspace. It also presages
     increasing tension between the architects of the Internet and the
     people who use it, as profound policy implications of technical
     decisions also loom for privacy and intellectual property.
     Traditionally, the technical rules that allow computers to perform
     tasks like sending and receiving electronic mail or documents were
     developed by organizations that represented the institutions,
     companies and individuals that most used the medium.
     But at a time when the global computer network is no longer the
     private preserve of scientists and academics, the procedures of
     groups like the one headed by Berners-Lee -- the World Wide Web
     Consortium, known as W3C -- are being called into question.
     Indeed, many of the civil libertarians who oppose the filter
     technology initially touted it as an alternative to government
     interference. More recently, they have concluded that
     speech-regulation features woven into the Internet may be as
     threatening to free expression as legislation.
                            Credit: Michael Quan
      Tim Berners-Lee is seen with computers at the international WWW
                           conference in Boston.
     "The W3C is taking on a quasi-governmental role, and to the extent
     that the standards it adopts become the basic standards of the
     Internet, it will have more influence than most national
     governments will have," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director
     of the American Civil Liberties Union. "These are not mere
     technical standards that engineers should be establishing. This
     platform raises fundamental questions about free speech, and that
     debate should occur in public."
     In a recent interview, Berners-Lee portrayed members of the group
     as social activists conscious of their legislationlike power and
     struggling to exercise it responsibly.
     "Most of the people who are working on the Web are not doing it
     because they have a frantic urge to program," Berners-Lee said.
     "They're doing it because they have a vision of how society should
     be improved. The difference is, now people can make social things
     possible by creating technology, whereas before, to make social
     things possible, really all you could do was make laws."
     Ultimately, how effective such standards are will depend on whether
     the major Internet browser companies apply them. Thomas Reardon,
     Microsoft's program manager for Internet architecture, and a member
     of the World Wide Web Consortium's advisory council, said the
     company was continuing to evaluate whether to include the
     technology in future versions of its browser.
     "We're certainly looking at which users get the most from it, and
     we're also aware of the downsides of government abuse, especially
     in foreign situations," Reardon said. "The company is going through
     a process of trying to look at it more formally."
     The World Wide Web Consortium's 231 members include most computing
     and telecommunications companies that have significant stakes in
     the Internet, some government agencies and several nonprofit
     groups. Membership fees are on a sliding scale, from $5,000 to
     $50,000. The group's stated goal is "to realize the full potential
     of the Web."
     The challenge in keeping the group apolitical, Berners-Lee said, is
     to create ways of achieving social goals that are "policy
     The platform selection technology, for example, is not itself a
     rating system but a labeling system that enables Web publishers to
     rate themselves or to be rated by third parties.
     Labels are essential to the growth of the Web, proponents of the
     filter standard argue, because while browser software cannot now
     look at the millions of sites on the Web and determine which
     contain violence or nudity, it can sort by looking at labels that
     describe the site's content.
     Under the model endorsed last month, anyone or any group -- from
     Good Housekeeping magazine to the government of Singapore to the
     Christian Coalition -- could create a ratings system, and parents
     could select the one that best represented their values. Aside from
     any benefits to children, widespread adoption of labeling would
     allow sorting by quality of information according to particular
     sources or other criteria.
     A problem is that the Web is vast and rating is labor-intensive.
     Civil libertarians say that the most likely outcome in the United
     States will be dominance by a few ratings systems that will
     probably exclude much of the material on the Web. Nor, they point
     out, would there be anything to prevent Congress from passing a law
     requiring the use of such systems.
     More frightening, the critics say, the new version of the filter
     specifications allows third parties to block all material
     originating from a particular Internet address like a political
     organization, a country or a group of nations.
     The European Commission has expressed interest in using the filters
     to enforce a policy to block illegal content. China, which recently
     announced new Internet censorship rules, and Singapore are widely
     cited as likely to use the filtering technology to impose
     Paul Resnick, one of the inventors of the content selection system,
     has created a sort of incubator at the University of Michigan,
     where he is an associate professor in the School of Information, to
     encourage the development of multiple ratings systems.
     "In the information age, issues of how information flows are going
     to have a huge impact on commerce, society and politics," Resnick
     said. "That's why this debate is happening. I think we as
     technologists have a special responsibility to educate
     policy-makers, to educate the public about what's possible. I think
     we also have a responsibility to invent new technologies that meet
     public goals with the fewest negative side effects.
     "But," he added, "if I go over a certain boundary and say what the
     public's goal ought to be, then I think I'm overstepping my bounds
     and abusing my power."
                 Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
Received on Monday, 19 January 1998 10:18:06 UTC

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