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RSALi's Self-censorship Drive

By David O. Dabney

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Pity the poor Internet. After free speech defenders plied their way through the courts to get the Communications Decency Act declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, people are now talking about yet another type of censorship: self censorship. This new type of control comes in the form of a ratings system very much like what the movie and the television industry voluntarily follow. Proposed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet (RSACi), the system includes five levels of ratings, each with four categories: violence, nudity, sex and language. (See chart.)

Under the RSACi system, sites would rate themselves according to the four categories. Parents would then be able to block sites using Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which incorporates RSACi's ratings system. They can also block all sites that do not use RSACi ratings at all. Netscape has not yet announced plans to incorporate RSACi in its browser.

This sort of system would put a rating on news sites as well, and that has free speech advocates and the online press themselves very nervous. "We're willing to be judged by what we do and who we are," says Dan Okrent, editor at Time Inc. New Media. "No one puts a filter over the mailbox to determine whether Time is appropriate for our audience. The same standards should apply to the Internet."

Saying that news organizations should not be subject to the ratings system as such, some organizations have proposed a rating that would allow unrated news sites to pass through RSACi enabled browsers. This solution points out the weaknesses of a self-rating system. Theoretically, the news designation would create a loophole where a pornographic site could include news that would appeal to its adult audience and get a free pass through the ratings system. But news organizations aren't the only ones lobbying for a special rating for their sites. Last June, after President Clinton made a speech urging Webwide compliance with the RSACi ratings system, government officials lobbied RSACi to create an exclusion to the RSACi ratings for government sites, too.

Any ideas for a system to either rate or filter content sites should be considered very carefully before being carried out on a widespread basis. According to Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the main plaintiff in the CDA case, the ACLU is, "... very troubled by the headlong rush of the Internet industry to embrace rating and blocking schemes. The end result could be a system of private censorship that transforms the open Internet into a bland homogenized medium dominated by American corporate interests."

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