Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Mandatory HTML tags won't protect kids from porn

Did you catch Lawrence Lessig's suggestion in Wired Issue 12.09 | September 2004?

He's suggesting a new mechanism for protecting kids from porn by mandating adult content vendors to place a meta tag self-identifying their sites as <porn>. The hope is that with such tags embedded in each site's pages a parent's web browser could be configured to block them from displaying undesirable materials.

What he described reminds me of the all-but-defunct PICS Content Filtering standard that has been around since the late 90s. In PICS various rating systems can be defined. One rating system that was proposed by the software publishing industry allowed sites to be rated for sex, violence, language, etc. Not too much different that the MPAA ratings for films.

Why did PICS fail? First and foremost PICS is voluntary. With only a very small fraction of web sites using it to self rate their own content, it was marginally better than parents attempting create their own list of sites to filter! Think of the Titantic with screen doors and open windows.

Even though Lessig suggests making these labels mandatory, everyone knows that the U.S. Congress cannot mandate good behavior on the web. Didn't Congress try to outlaw SPAM? If only US-based adult content are labeled billions of unrated foreign-based web pages would still be available to threaten the morals of our children.

But the failure of Lessig's suggestion goes much deeper than compliance.
It comes down to value judgments about what material is appropriate for which consumers. Even if the producer self-rates their own content, others will disagree with these self-ratings. A parent in rural Ohio may not have the same definition of pornography as Larry Flint.

Each month I have at least one adult complain that a book or film should be removed from our collection because he or she thinks it is inappropriate for children or even for other adults. In many cases these are classic works of literature. In each of these cases it is someone telling the Library what is inappropriate for someone else to read or view. What we buy for our library is pretty mainstream and is pretty popular on most main streets, and yet we have regular challenges. There certainly isn't an objective way to identify and label a web page let a lone a web site whose content many change daily.

Reading Lessig's article reminded me that I experimented with PICS technology back in the late-90s. My interest was to see if a less-biased filter could be constructed than what was being used in public libraries at the time. Back then as today, the differing world views of the information consumer dooms any attempt to label content to the satisfaction of everyone.

At our library we empower parents to monitor and control the borrowing habits of their children. We recommend that they take an active role in suggesting what their children read and watch. In the educating their children for life in an online world parents need to raise their children to respect their own values and hope they make the right choices. No technology can do that.


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