Parental Advisory:
Explicit Bandwidth

Congress tried and failed to regulate the Internet. It's as simple as that. The Communications Act of 1996 was passed and overturned quicker than Hillary Clinton can find a lost file. After the striking down of certain unconstitutional portions, the population of Cyberspace was left with a time of uncertainty. Very few doubt that the government will rear its head into the ever-changing world of the Internet once again. However, in the meantime, much is being done to attempt to self-regulate this medium that has grown so quickly over the past few years.

The theory follows that if the Internet can bring its collective self under control, there will be no need for Congress (or the international peacekeeping organization, the United Nations) to step in and attempt to regulate the content. Hence, there are a number of movements currently under development that are striving to catapult the Internet into an age of self-regulation.

One of the first and foremost of these attempts is being made by the Recreational Software Advisory (RSAC). RSAC is famous for the DOOM-inspired ratings which appear on many software packages today, rating violence, nudity, and explicit language. This rating system has been adapted to the Internet and is now going by the clever moniker RSACi. As Stephen Blakam, executive director of RSAC, recently told Micrsosoft Magazine, "The RSACi system provides objective, detailed information about the content of an Internet site based on the levels of sex, nudity, violence, and offensive language located within that site. The parent or consumer is then able to decide what is objectionable or indecent." Currently, the system would allow webmasters to submit ratings for their sites. Then, browsers could be locked down by parents to only allow access to the appropriate level of sites. An example of the rating system follows, showing a comparison of guidelines for a Level-0 site, the "least offensive" rating, and a Level-5 site, the Internet equivalent of Showgirls.

Violence Rating Nudity Rating Sex Rating Language Rating
Level 0 Harmless conflict, some damage to objects No nudity or revealing attire Romance, no sex Inoffensive slang; no profanity
Level 5 Wanton and gratuitous violence; torture; rape Provocative frontal nudity Explicit sexual activity; sex crimes Crude or explicit sexual references; Extreme Hate Speech

Another example of attempts at self-regulation can be seen in the concept of third-party, commercial software packages which help locate and lock out sites containing indecent materials. Many programs such as Net Nanny and SurfWatch allow users to download lists of "offensive sites" from a frequently-updated database. These sites are then banned from the user's browser. Net Nanny even goes so far as to censor off-line material using it's built-in starter dictionary of "offensive items." How well the implementation of these systems will go depends primarily upon how much more the consumer wishes to pay after buying his or her browser for this add-on software. When Netscape 3.0 is going for $49.95, it's hard to tell how many people will have another fifty dollars to spend on the additional software. Many of these program also require a monthly update fee after purchase to keep the database fresh.

All of the currently-suggested solutions are working to conform to the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Platform for Internet Content (PICS). This system will act as a technology-base for many of the upcoming ratings systems, including RSACi. It should be made clear that PICS will not actually set the ratings; it will act as a set of technical specifications. Therefore, companies and websites could set their own ratings standards and incorporate them into third-party software or content guidelines. Microsoft is currently implementing features in Internet Explorer that will take advantage of including parental control based on PICS specifications. One can only assume that Netscape will be soon to follow. Once the major browsers begin building in these features, they will probably spread throughout the web.

Who knows exactly what rating system the Internet will settle on in the near future? However, the fact is clear that one singular method must be decided on soon and stuck with. In the medium of film, motion pictures are rated in the G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 rating system. If some movies were rated Level 3 and others were represented by bomb icons for violence, the only result would be confused consumers. It is also clear that the preferable option is self-regulation in matters of Internet content. We may not want to censor it at all, but better we do it ourselves than force the government to do it for us. Hopefully, this will encourage webmasters to register their sites before the government take another stab at registering them.

Jess Morrissette

[back to verbosity]