Decency without Force -- html-based solution

Subhas C. Roy (subhas@cs.wm.edu)
Wed, 24 May 1995 14:45:33 -0400


From: "Subhas C. Roy" <subhas@cs.wm.edu>
Date: Wed, 24 May 1995 14:45:33 -0400
Message-Id: <199505241845.OAA27418@ma.cs.wm.edu>
To: www-html@w3.org
Subject: Decency without Force  -- html-based solution


The following is a solution that I propose to reduce the problem of
'Communication Decency' on the Internet. If adopted, I believe it will
steal the thunder from the Senate's anxious legal attempt to prevent
the Internet from becoming a 'red light district'. If you support the
proposal, you can help in its speedy acceptance.

Regards,
Subhas Roy  subhas@cs.wm.edu

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    Can the parents prevent their children 
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      from viewing unwanted Web pages? 
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Yes. There is a solution that is simple, free and democratic.

Below the proposed solution is introduced in a question-answer form.


Q1.  What is your "Simple Solution"?

A. All it needs is a little cooperation from the Web browser designers
   and the adult Web page authors. Here is the proposed solution:

  In the next version of the Web navigators, just introduce a new HTML
  tag <adult_only>. If a WWW browser encounters this tag (enclosed inside
  the <head> </head> part of a HTML document), then the browser will
  simply refuse to load or render the document. The author of a Web page
  should put that tag in all of his pages containing materials that he
  does not want to be seen by young children.

  At the time of installing the browser, a password will be asked from
  the person (who is assumed to be an adult) installing the
  program. This password is for identification of the installer.  As a
  default, the <adult_only> checking is enabled.  To allow a parent (the
  adult installer) the freedom to view adult-only stuff, the browser can
  have a command-line option "-unrestricted".  If that option is used,
  the program will ask for a password for identification (only at the
  beginning of the session) and the checking the tag gets disabled for that
  session.

  This way, a parent protects the kids from unwanted stuff on the
  Net. Also, the adult page authors are protected from unwelcome
  attention from the kids. It involves no cost, no laws or hassles.


Q2. Why is this fuss? I don't see any problem. Therefore no solution
    is necessary.

A. Actually, there is a problem. Do you want your 10-year old kid to
  read Hustler magazine? There are actually lots of adult materials on
  the Web (and there are going to be more in the future) which are even
  more unsuitable for young children. Concerned parents want to protect
  their kids from viewing such materials available on the Web. Also,
  adult page authors don't want any kids to view their stuff. Its apparent
  that the Internet is going to be so useful that kids should be
  encouraged to surf the Net.  Currently there is no good solution to
  this dilemma.

  If something is not done by the net-citizens themselves, the
  politicians can generate enough public support to curtail freedom of
  expression on the Net. Despite all the hype, only a small percentage
  of the general population are on the Net and thus netters are powerless
  to the law-makers majority of whom are not friends of the Net.

  The so-called Communication Decency Bill is ultimately harmful and
  moreover it won't work because Internet does not know any country
  boundaries. Nevertheless, the politicians are making impassioned
  arguments that the children must be protected from the pornographic
  materials and other unwanted materials (like how to make a bomb). Do
  they have a valid point? Well, let me rephrase the question :

   If you have a simple way to prevent your kids from viewing some adult
  materials or other unwanted stuff available on the Web, would you use
  it to control their access? Particularly if that objective can be
  accomplished without any censorship laws or any inconvenience? Also
  free of cost too? I suppose most parents probably would.


Q3. What about gopher and FTP sites?

A.  This solution works for any HTML page which many come via HTTP,
  gopher or FTP protocols.  Besides, now the Web is the most popular
  part of the Net and HTML is the language of the Web. However,
  external gif/jpeg files cannot be prevented because they are not in
  HTML. So, by this tagging trick, all the unwanted stuff that is not in
  HTML cannot be barred. Still what matters most gets covered.


Q4. Why would the purveyors of net pornography comply to use the
    <adult_only> HTML tag in their pages?

A. It seems that the people who are posting adult materials on their
  Web pages would like to prevent the young children from accessing the
  pages. That's why they currently set up a farcial
  'adult-access-shield' -- "How old are you? Don't click here if you are
  under 18."  So, we can hope that an author of a Web page containing
  adult stuff will be glad to put this HTML tag at the beginning of the
  all Web pages containing adult materials. One can send an e-mail to
  remind the author in case such a page is not properly tagged. If he still
  does not comply, nothing can be done without force however. Such
  people will be very few probably.


Q5. Why should Netscape people or Mosaic people support this html tag?

A. Because implementing this tag in their browsers is almost trivially
  easy and all protective parents and educators would be glad to have
  the support for such a tag. Such a tag should become a part of the
  standard HTML.


Q6. But browsers are freely available and a kid can download his own
   copy of a browser himself. Also, a smart kid can hack something to get
   around the efforts of access control. What about that?

A. Yes, this could be a problem. But automated software techniques
  (using some operating system support) can be used to ensure that
  no secretly installed browser exists in the system.

  A determined smart kid cannot not prevented from accessing anything he
  wants. He can possibly write his own browser and other tools. So, let's
  be concerned only about the no-so-determined kids.


Q7. Can't we use SurfWatch software or other such tools?

A. SurfWatch (http://www.surfwatch.com) is a newly announced tool that
  seem to allow the concerned parents to prepare a list of offending
  sites.  Any site in the list will be denied access to the browsers
  used by the children of the customers of SurfWatch.

  However there are some problems:

   - Nobody can maintain an up-to-date and exhaustive list of
  sites. There are many obscure sites all over the world. New Web pages
  are appearing and disappearing dynamically everyday. You may block the
  Penthouse site, but your kid may possibly be viewing far more unwanted
  stuff from some obscure site in Netherlands if that site is not
  included in your list.

   - SurfWatch will maintain a list of unwanted sites for you (if you
   pay extra monthly fee). Then you will need to trust SurfWatch to
   decide what is good or bad for your kids. You will have to pay for
   the blocking software as well as a optional list of sites maintained
   by SurfWatch surfing team.

   - A WWW site can host thousands of separate Web pages only a few of
  which probably contain adult materials and the rest are possibly
  harmless or useful. So blocking access to a site is not a good
  idea. If SurfWatch starts maintaining a list of offending Web pages,
  the list will be in very very long indeed. It is a hopeless idea to
  maintain a list of unwanted sites or unwanted URLs.

  To give SufWatch their due credit: <adult_only> tag works only for WWW's
  HTML-ed material. SurfWatch can work in most areas -- WWW, gopher,
  FTP, Chat and NetNews.  Also, their filter will be able to block out
  majority of the sites including all well-known ones. Interestingly, the
  <adult_only> tagging will make the job easier for SurfWatch because it
  can hunt and blacklist all Web pages labelled with <adult_only> tag.


Q8. But this is censorship. I hate censorship.

A. I hate too.  However, the <adult_only> tag idea is not a really bad
  censorship. It will work only if _both_ the creator of the page wants
  it _and_ the parent of the kid wants it. The author can omit the
  labelling. Also, a parent can turn off the checking of <adult_only>
  html tag if she/he wants to let the kid have unrestricted access to
  all pages. Only the kid's freedom to have unrestricted acess will be
  curtailed (only if his parents wish so).  But then his parent controls
  all aspects of the kids's life anyway. By the labelling adult-only web
  pages, an adult page author just gives the parent a convenient way to
  block the access of the page if the parent chooses to do so.


Q9. OK, the tag seems to be a good idea. I wonder if it could be used for
   other purposes.

A.  This tag idea can be generalized to classify Web documents in
  variety of ways and it will greatly facilitate cataloging the Web
  documents. Web desperately needs such categorization so that your
  browser can select and reject Web materials of all sorts based on your
  priorities. This will cut down noise as well as litigation.

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