Worried about porn? You too can be an Internet policeman

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The Independent Online
POLICING the Internet has just begun in this country. The newly created Internet Watch Foundation announced last week that its hotline service has generated 781 reports referring to 4,300 items about which there were complaints. The bulk of the calls were about child pornography. Internet Watch was set up by the industry as a result of prompting by two government departments, the Home Office and Trade and Industry.

People are at once worried and despairing about the Internet. They can see that it will eventually bring material to the computer screen that will be as powerful as anything which is available in the cinema, on video or on television. For the moment, the poor quality of the moving image, in which everything appears stilted and fuzzy, has the effect of distancing the viewer. All the same, many web sites specialising in pornography are popular. And as the telephone links between computers begin to carry more data, so the primitive nature of the Internet will disappear.

The despair comes from what I think is largely a misapprehension that the Internet could never, for instance, be made as suitable for children as, say, early evening television. The argument is that cyberspace exists beyond national boundaries and cannot be reached by government law enforcement agencies and regulators. How can you stop somebody based upon an obscure island in the Caribbean sending out objectionable material which your children can quickly find by searching the Internet, children who seem so adept with computers? No 9 o'clock watershed on the computer screen!

The solution will be derived from the fact that if a label or electronic tag is placed on a web site or on individual web pages, then the computer in the home can be programmed to `read' the tag and, if the user so chooses, decline to access the site or the page. The technology already exists and limited use is being made of it. Like so much else on the Internet such filtering is crude, or, to put it more kindly, at an early stage.

Nonetheless the questions thus become what sort of labels and whether companies and individuals posting material onto the world wide web can be persuaded attach them. In the cinema, the British Board of Film Classification (of which I have recently become president) evaluates films according to their suitability for viewing by children and attaches an age label. This is appropriate because the gate keeper is not only the parent but the ticket seller. If a 12 year-old turns up to seek entrance to a film rated `18', he or she doesn't get in. In the video market (which is also a British Board of Film Classification responsibility), the system is both evaluative, using age labels to guide staff in video shops, and descriptive, placing consumer advice on video packaging to help parents. As far as the Internet is concerned, because parents are the sole gate keepers, a descriptive system alone, which generates a neutral rating the computer can read (say, `level 4' rather than `suitable for viewers aged 15 or over'), is the appropriate method.

But who would carry out the rating for violence, sex, nudity, language, teaching of criminal techniques and so on? In the United Kingdom, the expert examiners of the British Board of Film Classification do this work before publication. This simply would not work with Internet material. There is too much of it. Pre-vetting would be impossible to arrange. The only way forward is do-it-yourself. Providers of Internet content would have to rate themselves.

This may seem a ridiculously optimistic objective, but the fact is that the American computer games industry has recently agreed to rate its products itself on a common basis. Makers of computer games fill out an ingenious questionnaire (on the computer screen, naturally) that branches through a series of highly detailed and narrowly defined questions to which the answer can only be `no' or `yes'. From the answers the computer automatically generates a score and a description. For instance, the computer game `Doom' is rated Violence Level 3 with the accompanying description `blood and gore'. This is a method which would be suitable for Internet material.

Unfortunately, for the purposes of regulation in cyber space, there are no distributors. There is nothing equivalent to the position of British cinemas, whose licences from local authorities invariably contain a classification requirement, or equivalent to British video shops, where it is illegal to sell or rent out unclassified material, or equivalent to the American software retailers, who have allowed themselves to be pressurised into rejecting computer games that lack a rating label on the packaging. Except that in theory, you can now, if you have the correct software, set your computer so that it will not access unrated web sites or unrated material. To-day this would leave you for the most part with a blank screen but it shows how users will eventually be able to impose their will.

Until then, it is up to governments around the world, and all the big Internet players, to encourage self-classification and electronic labelling, to insist upon it where possible and thus engender a virtuous circle. The proprietary web sites like CompuServe have already made progress. Conventional publishers operating on the Internet can be targeted. So can makers of browsers; likewise the producers of search engines and all the other paraphernalia. The process will take some time. But in due course I believe that the means will exist for ordinary people, who hook up their home computers to the Internet, to contrive that material they deem to be objectionable, will be rejected. Each individual, each family will decide what to accept, what to reject. Computer technology is not frightening but enabling. Properly used, it will allow us to be our own policemen.

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