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Porn and Privacy

While its technical work is widely admired, the W3C has raised eyebrows with projects that have more to do with regulating online society than managing the flow of bits. And no W3C initiative has caused more controversy than the consortium’s efforts in its “Technology and Society” domain. The consortium’s two most significant projects in this arena are PICS, a Web-based system designed to let parents and schools control the kind of information children can view on the Internet, and P3P, a system for controlling privacy and the spread of personal information. What has steamed some critics is the notion that, by creating these protocols, the consortium is actually setting social policy for cyberspace-and, in the process, usurping the role of democratically elected governments.

PICS (short for Platform Independent Content Selection) was conceived in August 1995 in response to what many at the W3C regarded as an impending political catastrophe. The U.S. Congress was about to enact a law that would have criminalized transmission of “indecent” material to minors over the Internet. PICS offered an alternative approach in which Web sites would rate themselves, saying whether they contained nudity, sexuality, violence, and if so, how much. Parents could then selectively block access to those Web sites using screening software they would install on their own computers.

The PICS working group operated in secret at breakneck speed, producing a specification and working code within three months, says Jim Miller, who led the effort while at the W3C and now works for Microsoft. PICS didn’t prevent Congress from passing the Communications Decency Act. But the federal court that held the act unconstitutional in 1996 cited PICS as evidence that the Web could police itself without external censorship.

Proponents of PICS say the system is policy-neutral: The W3C didn’t create a specific rating system or dictate what could or could not be seen by children. But others disagree, noting that PICS is ideally suited to enable a person’s Internet service provider to filter the material it allows its subscribers to have access to. This capability, inherent in the design of PICS, makes it easy to use the technology for censorship-something that it was purportedly designed to prevent. “I don’t like the ease with which upstream filtering can go on invisibly” with PICS, says Lawrence Lessig, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, and an expert on cyberspace issues. With PICS, he says, “the code writers become important policy-makers.”

Lessig believes a more open process might have created a technology less liable to subvert basic freedoms. “Given that [the consortium] is a pretty powerful organization, it should be more open. If they want to do policy, they have to accept the constraints on a policy-making body, such as openness in who can participate.” But constraints like those are antithetical to W3C’s charter as an industry body, responsible first to the needs of its members-who pay its bills.

The W3C acknowledges this criticism, and says it is making an effort to do better. “The W3C has done a progressively better job of engaging outside constituencies and experts,” says Danny J. Weitzner, who was deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in Washington, D.C., until this fall, when he became leader of the W3C’s Technology and Society Domain. For example, says Weitzner, the CDT was involved in the “PICS process,” even though CDT was not a member organization of W3C at the time. (CDT has since joined the consortium.) From now on, Weitzner says he plans “to do everything I possibly can to engage people who are interested in these technology-and-society issues.”

One of the biggest issues on Weitzner’s agenda will be privacy-a concern that has a significant commercial impact that motivates W3C’s corporate members. According to some surveys, as many as 80 percent of Internet users who refuse to make purchases online base their decision in part on fear that their privacy might be violated via the information they surrender in making the transaction. Net users’ privacy angst is not fantasy; a trail of personal information gets left online by practically every Web user. Click into one Web site and you might be completely anonymous; on the other hand, a different site might secretly record your name, e-mail address, and everything you look at. The privacy problem is being exacerbated by political pressures. The Clinton administration has issued a warning to the Web community: adopt a model for self-regulation or be prepared for government intervention.

As the issue of privacy surfaced, the W3C working group dealing with PICS came to an intriguing realization. Rather than rating Web sites on the basis of their sexual content, PICS could rate a site’s privacy practices. Then, if you wanted to avoid sites that didn’t honor your privacy, your computer could automatically keep you out-just like the computer of a child whose parent didn’t want them to view pornography.

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