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Brouhaha: W3C has (accidentally) suggested policy

From: Matthew Lye <mlye@trentu.ca>
Date: Mon, 19 Jan 98 16:19:11 -0500
Message-Id: <199801192118.QAA02102@spartan.ac.BrockU.CA>
To: "W3C WAI IG" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

Perhaps W3C should have had, as their standard for whether or not a 
project fell into the category of 'policy', a simple question:  
     "Will this cause people to discuss politics in wai-ig?"  ;)

It has been many years since I've written anything of this length (for 
that matter, since I've asserted an opinion), so I hope those interested 
in what William Loughborough has aptly named 'the brouhaha' will bear 
with me.

  Although W3C may not have intended to implement policy per se, they 
have created a standard whereby the _permissibility rules_ regarding the 
asserted semantic content of a document are machine parsable.  This 
expedites the formulation of censorship policies, and, as I contend 
below, constitutes a societal policy decision in that the declaration of 
a standard - the construction of an infrastructure for information - is 
an endorsement of, and advancement of, the theory by which that 
infrastructure is designed.

  I have trouble believing no-one in the W3C could have predicted a 
negative reaction.

  By making internet censorship 'user friendly', W3C has introduced it as 
a simple, achievable concept to the legislative imagination.  Government 
bodies will test whether their powers are extensible to the 'new' medium. 
 Political rivals will use the issue as a battlefield.  Demagoguery will 
bloom like algae near a sewer pipe.  And, for the very first time, W3C 
will have political enemies.  This will interfere with the development of 
standards and protocols, because if W3C has not represented to date a 
consensus about policy - a word which now suddenly stands for ethics, 
morality, and human rights - they will henceforth be challenged on that 

  I realize that there will be workarounds, as love26@gorge.net suggests. 
 But to seek to circumvent censorship is a definite action.  It will be 
much easier to distinguish, both legislatively and in the public 
imagination, between the 'good' people and the 'bad' people.

  In that imagination, the distribution of dubious formulas for explosive 
or psychotropic chemicals will not be the 'hot button' issue with regards 
to internet content control.  The issue will be pornography, precisely 
because of the excitement of internal conflict that the Western sense of 
'taboo' generates.  In the United States and Canada, pornography is 
traditionally 'taboo':  this identifies it as a perhaps desirable, 
forbidden thing, the prohibition of which is to be violated secretly, at 
the risk of exposure;  and that risk, of course, enhances the 'perhaps 
desirability' - shockingness is, as usual, part of the thrill.

The PICS system has been designed primarily so that parents can prevent 
their children from seeing pornography.  The nature of the taboo 
structure in North America will cause it to be implemented on a much 
wider scale.  Not at the level of the false prohibition of the taboo 
structure, but to prevent the confusion of actual prohibition with the 
ritualized facsimile.  Consider these two statements:  
     "Pornography is the realm of forbidden desires."
     "Child pornography is the realm of forbidden desires."

  Very few of us would intend that those two sentences be semantically 
identical;  we would prefer that the two senses of 'forbidden' be very, 
very different.  But you will notice, at the distance of text, that the 
distinction can be made only on faith.  They are syntactically identical. 
 One would not generally write the second, because of the possibility of 
confusion with the first.  So it is with my society as a whole:  we will 
at all costs eliminate the distribution of child pornography on the 
internet, because to fail to do so is to leave the possibility of 
confusion between the inadequate prohibition of child pornography and the 
inadequate 'prohibition' of pornography in general. 

  The creation of the PICS standard is a de facto policy action, because 
the presenting problem - parents wishing to make evil invisible to their 
children - is actually an instance of a general policy for dealing with 
evil, which is to make it invisible.  One is powerless to overturn the 
injustice of poverty, and so the homeless are dirty, uncouth, sub-human.  
One believes passionately that all men are created equal, and so one has 
in truth improved the lot of one's slaves.  Etcetera.  Based on the 
understanding that the parent (1) has the right to limit the power of the 
child, and (2) controls information upstream from the child, 
PICS-compliant applications are suitable for (1) limiting the power of 
(2) downstream, period.  They can be used to limit, conditionalize, or 
halt the normative flow of information from or to any information space.  
This has consequences not only for authoritarian societies - be they 
malignant or benign - but for all societies, because while a majority 
consensus is eager to form with regards to what is or is not evil, it is 
much less clear whether information about evil is evil.

  The distribution of child pornography will be henceforth much more 
difficult on the internet.  This is a goal which is hard to dispute.  
Legislation regarding the labeling of semantic content in accordance with 
the PICS protocol will be required;  one cannot allow the flow of 
'anonymous' information if one is to successfully embargo 
child-pornography information.  Well and good.  The distributors of this 
information will be forced to resort to secure, negotiated transfers.  We 
will no longer have to think about the sexual abuse of children, or 
explain to our children about adults having sex with children.

  It is my belief that, as societies, we are not in a position to suggest 
that child abuse is 'taboo' rather than extremely damaging:  we have much 
to lose if we do not take censorship action, once censorship is a 
question of permission, of implicit societal endorsement, rather than one 
of pro-active technological development.  But in truth, few children who 
are sexually abused are photographed.  The censorship of child 
pornography will not mitigate the trauma of a single sexually abused 
child.  And we will have removed the explicit awareness of the evil - the 
discordant effect of the awareness of the evil - from the information of 
culture, or 'societal consciousness'.  We will have done so specifically 
because the strategy of 'making invisible', of estranging evil from 
consciousness has as an ever present corollary the possibility, the 
suggestion, that what is left visible may be in some way, therefore, 
permissible.  In this instance, as I mentioned above, that corollary is 
reinforced by practice.

  A label-based system can serve the cause of 'parental guidance' better 
than a keyword-check based system only if it is set up to disallow 
'unlabeled' documents and there is a reasonable assurance of label 
accuracy.  No system implemented at the PC end of the information chain 
can prevent a child who is more computer proficient than the parent from 
circumventing it.  Therefore I have trouble believing that the PICS 
system was designed on behalf of any cause other than that of 'liability 
prevention' for ISPs.  If this was in fact the guiding intent of the 
corporate members, then the FAQ about PICS at the W3C web site comes 
close to being disinformation, and W3C is well within the realm of 

     Matt Lye.
Received on Monday, 19 January 1998 16:19:27 UTC

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