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Michael Conn works for MCI Worldcom. He is their representative on the Internet Society Advisory Council where he was elected as the officer responsible for questions of ethics. This interview was carried out during INET99, the annual meeting of the Internet Society, which took place this year in San Jose, California.

Finding the balance on the Internet between freedom of speech and protecting children

As officers of the Internet Society Advisory Council we asked ourselves what role we could play to provide valuable input for the overall Internet Society. We sought out some topics that could be dealt with. Although we have developed this wonderful instrument called the Internet, there are still many people who hesitate to let their children on the Internet because of such things as pornography. At the same time, one of the most gratifying things for me in being a part of the development of the Internet is to see my son and how much he uses the Internet and what a tremendous tool it will be for him and his generation. So the topic that I picked was to try to find the right balance between freedom of speech and the protection of children from violence and pornography.

The Internet Society moto is that "the Internet is for Everyone", so what I am trying to do is to find tools for parents so that their children can use the Internet without fear. It is not the Internet Society's intent to get involved in content control. I see our role as investigating the tools that are out there so as to be able to articulate their strengths and weaknesses to parents who are looking for guidance as well as to governments.

The World Wide Web Consortium has developed PICS - the Platform for Internet Content Selection. It uses hidden meta-tags at the top of the web page that can be employed to manage content. PICS isn't specific to the question of pornography, but matched with it there are a couple of schemes designed to rate content. The one that impressed me most was developed by RSAC - the Recreational Software Advisory Council. Initially RSAC began with the concern about violence in software games. They developed a rating system for parents who wanted to buy software for their children. Given the success of RSAC, they were encouraged to create a similar scheme for the Internet. So they developed RSACi using the PICS system. To my mind, they hit a good balance between the various things they rated and the intensity levels. Somebody has to add the meta-tag and some of the schemes become so complex that they become a very serious challenge.

RSACi put the burden of rating on the person creating the web page. They went to the top one hundred sites around the world and all had agreed to work with them. The default content advisor from Netscape 4.5 onwards and Internet Explorer 3.0 was RSACi. As a user you could set the levels you wanted your children exposed to.

There is also a parental organisation called Safe Surf that has also developed a PICS compatible rating system that is a little more granular. For those people who don't have the a system in their browser, there are several software packages like CyberPatrol, CyberSitter that use these ratings, giving the user the option as to which rating system they want to use.

When I presented the results of my research to the Board of Trustees of ISOC there was some concern that there are so many web pages that hadn't been rated that there would be a phenomenal workload. They also indicated that there were ISPs that specialise in content control. If we carry on with this work, which I believe we will, I'd like to investigate some of the ISPs that have done that. That could lead us to submitting a policy statement to the Internet Society Board of Trustees.

Michael Conn, INET99, San Jose, California
Interview by Alan McCluskey

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Created: July 5th, 1999 - Last up-dated: July 5th, 1999