By Scott Rosenberg
Ratings, as in PG, R and X, are coming to the World Wide Web. The only questions left are when and how -- and what impact they will have on the freewheeling new medium.
It's been a rough season for free expression on the Internet. Congress threatens to pass draconian Net-censorship laws; Time magazine runs an alarmist cover story on "Cyberporn" based on a seriously flawed and widely challenged study; demagogues grab hold of wildly erroneous statistics to play on parents' fears of a technology that their kids understand better than they do.
The World Wide Web is the easiest-to-navigate part of the Internet, and so it's where young kids are most likely to be wandering. It's also the Net neighborhood that businesses have found most congenial, and that many hope to turn into a global on-line marketplace.
Unscientific examination and everyday experience suggest that there isn't a whole lot of pornography on the Web. The few hard-core sites, like those of Penthouse and Hustler magazines, require you to register with a credit card number before you can gain full access to their wares. (That's probably better protection against consumption by minors than plastering "Not for sale to persons under the age of 18" on a magazine cover and hoping that store clerks enforce the edict.) Still, the effort to turn the Web into a family-friendly cyber-mall can't move forward if big companies get too worried about sharing the virtual block with adult bookstores.
The latest plan for coping with this -- and for forestalling government regulation -- emerges from the W3 Consortium, an organization led by Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist who invented the Web. The W3 plan involves adding a new layer to the protocols that underly the Web -- a "content ratings field" that would allow information providers to rate the material they were publishing and consumers to block out (or, presumably, tune in to) specific rating categories.
Keep in mind that the W3 plan applies only to the World Wide Web; it has no bearing on the Usenet newsgroups (like alt.binaries.pictures.erotica) where individuals post encoded files of nude pictures, or on the private, pay-as-you-go, dial-up bulletin boards that cater to the hardest-core on-line porn aficionados.
Leaders of the fledgling Web industry tend to look at the ratings plan with a forehead-wiping air of relief - as if, once they institute that change, they can move on with the real work at hand. What they ignore, a little too eagerly, is the very mixed record of the similar ratings system that the U.S. film industry has relied on for almost three decades. Before the Web's architects lock an MPAA-style ratings system into place, it's worthwhile to raise some questions based on sad experience.
The W3 plan's ratings could only function if individual users upgraded their browser software to include the new feature -- and if the companies and individuals who maintain Websites also upgraded their "server" software, the programs that feed Web documents across the Net.
But will any voluntary system satisfy vociferous, censorship-minded critics? The anyone-can-play Web technology assures that someone somewhere will decide to flout the ratings plan and post some unrated porn. What happens when a child clicks on that site and the parents sue? Thanks to such incidents, any voluntary plan will tend over time to harden into a compulsory system run by a ratings board.
When that inevitable clamor for compulsory ratings arises, who will constitute the rating authority and what criteria will it use? The movie industry often behaves as if its ratings board's decisions are obvious and uncontroversial. The truth is that its proceedings are secretive and its choices often highly arbitrary. Its laxity toward gore is notorious. It tends to approve sexually explicit scenes when they're humorous or conventional -- but slap on restrictive ratings when they're more thoughtful, serious or challenging.
The NC-17 rating was originally promulgated so "serious" adult movies with sexual content could avoid the stigmatized X rating associated with ostensible smut. In today's marketplace, though, NC-17 means the same ostracism and mass-market death X does: Theater chains won't show NC-17 movies, and Blockbuster, the near-monopoly video chain, won't stock them on their shelves.
Compared to Hollywood, the Web is a vastly decentralized medium, far less subject to control. Still, a ratings system built into the network's fabric raises the possibility of limited access to or de facto censorship of adult-rated material. And when that happens, who'll be able to devise the program to distinguish the X or NC-17 rating received by "Deep Throat" from that awarded to "Ulysses," "The Duchess of Malfi" or "Henry and June"?
The MPAA's ratings system was instituted in the 1960s, during an era of rapid social change, as a quick fix to a controversy over increasingly explicit sexual material in mainstream films. The ratings system "worked" in that it preserved Hollywood's access to a mass audience. At the same time, it helped shape the lock-step monotony of today's movie scene -- in which the studios vie to spend ever huger pots of money producing bigger, louder and duller duplicates of last year's hits. Movie ratings are one of the chief reasons adventurous filmmakers don't even bother trying to make movies for adults; they know if they address any controversial subject artfully and in detail, they will probably find the path to a wide audience blocked by the raters.
The Web is a new medium with different dynamics. Consumers aren't limited to the local multiplex's offerings - they can pick and choose from an increasingly vast array of millions of texts, images, and multimedia offerings. They have more control; they can take more responsibility.
Inevitably, entrepreneurs will step in to put tools in the hands of concerned parents. Independent companies will come along with products, like the recently announced Surfwatch, for parents who wish to limit their children's image diet. You may want to rely on Surfwatch's ratings; I may want to exercise my own judgment. Such options will better serve the growth of the Web than any system-level ratings system likely to become an intrusive and inhibiting standard.
Speaking at the recent Internet Society conference in Honolulu, Berners-Lee admitted that adding a "content ratings field" to the Web protocols wasn't an easy project: "Here we have an opportunity to make one enormous mess."
Another way of looking at this issue is to ask: Do you want to see the Web develop into a network-based clone of the stultified movie industry -- or watch it evolve, according to its own principles, into something genuinely new?
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