Should websites get movie style age ratings?

The UK culture secretary has fanned an old flame: PG/PG-13/R style ratings for websites. It’s an old idea, one some of you may know I had some involvement with back in the day. Internet Explorer 3.0 was the first browser to support PICS, a W3C standard system for allowing websites to be rated, and I was the PM for the IE team that built the feature.

The thing never took off, which most of me thinks is a good thing. However it did help in some way to prevent the Communications Decency Act from being enforced, and possibly influencing the 2003 decision to remove the indecency provisions from the Act.

PICS makes for a great study in the challenges of public policy, technology and censorship. The coolest concept it had was the ability for any rating system to be used, and for anyone to create one, dodging the entire problem of defining obscenity, good, bad or anything. It was a meta rating system: a system for creating and using rating systems, and tools for parents or administrators to decide how many systems to use and what permissions were allowed. But that was also the Achilles heel: there was never anything to market to parents. And when we did put one of the PICS supporting systems in the box called RSACi, a system designed by Stanford professors, it confused the issue on what PICS was, what Microsoft was doing and who these RSACi folks were. The only system everyone know was the movie system, and that was really all they wanted to see.

More problematic, no solution was offered for how to rate a zillion websites, or a zillion websites with a thousand pages. There was no real business in making a web rating system.

Worst of all, the project was an easy target for censorship and Orwellian nightmare fantasies (Lawrence Lessig wrote “Pics is the Devil”, Wired 5.07). It all turned out to be moot: few even remember what PICS was, much less use it. I’m not saying those fears were unwarranted, but the idea died for reasons that had little to do with what folks were so worried about. Here’s a good summary of the whole is PICS censorship question, written by one of the folks who wrote the PICS Spec.

PICS also makes an excellent case study in the history of innovation. The technology of PICS was truly novel and at minimum an interesting approach to a difficult, subjective, and highly charged problem. But it also divided people sharply, created new problems, had major flaws, and took on big risks, all factors in most innovations, successful or not.

And of course, in my entire experience with the whole world of parental controls and censorship, the funny thing was people rarely ever talked about the neighbor’s kid theory. It goes like this: who cares what you do as a parent if when your Johnny goes over to his friend Fred’s house, Fred being the child of parents who didn’t bother to install whatever magic software you do, they go to whatever websites they like. Kids are exceptional at figuring out which friend’s parents have the most lenient rules. They’re also always better at hacking new technologies than their parents are. It’s all running up a steep hill if you asked me. Technology doesn’t seem to be the solution here. (I do realize the “neighbor’s kid theory” doesn’t apply if the blocking takes place at the government level).

Anyway, there’s a ton of history in this story and lots to learn. And don’t get me started on the problems with the USA PG/PG-13/R/X system, oh boy does that have some problems. Anyway, it’s a shame none of it gets mentioned by the Telegraph. I’m sure this issue will come up every few years from now until forever.

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6 Responses to “Should websites get movie style age ratings?”

  1. Chuck

    I think the only way this would work is if one or three non-profit groups decided to do it on a large scale.

    It would have to be non-profit to avoid the censorship idea you have. And I think 1-3 groups would be best to also help against this.

    If it’s for-profit, just use one of the many commercial filters out there. A government agency could never keep up with the spam, thumb-sites, and new sites that come out every day. Those guys would have an incentive to ‘break the code’ and some regular guys would be SOL.

    And the Australia gov’t just looked into it and noted they could be liable for wrong listings. And that would kill a gov’t. If it’s non-profit and opt-in, it shouldn’t be as bad.


  2. Peter Hickman

    The whole problem with such rating systems, assuming you can rate all those millions of pages, is that it allows the parents to abdicate responsibility for educating their children or even spending time with them.

  3. Scott

    Peter: So then what do you think of the U.S. movie rating system? And also, are you a parent?

    I think it’s reasonable for things to be labeled for parents in the same way it’s reasonable that food, by law in the U.S., has to have ingredient labels. It doesn’t abdicate responsibility for me to see what I’m really buying when I’m at the store. The challenge is how to do it without the negative effects of ratings (possible censorship). But we have these systems in place already (e.g. MPAA film ratings)and its worth studying how they came about and what the effects have been.

  4. Neil C. Obremski

    I don’t mind the idea of ratings, but I also don’t think they’ll solve much compared to the weird problems created. And making them a requirement, especially at the government level, seems a ridiculous panacea.

    I’ve been chastised for saying “fart” around children by some parents, so I can’t imagine there would ever be a consensus on the limits of kid-friendly.

  5. Scott

    Neil: on consensus you’re right, and that’s exactly why PICS failed. Many people interested in using parental controls want their to be a standard they can use without having to do much work, but they don’t want it be someone else’s standard :)

    The ICRA rating system at least tries to just document what is in the website, not whether it’s good or bad. But any system that has a scale suggests goodness and badness by how the scale is set up (e.g. R is worse than PG).

  6. Peter Hickman

    Scott: I am a parent and I am always in the room when my boy is on the internet to make sure that he doesn’t end up somewhere unsavory when he types something into Google or to help him find what he is looking for. Same for my nephews. Just in the same room on the sofa and keeping an eye on his screen.

    The ‘rate web pages / sites’ like movies is a bogus argument. Once you have rated the movie Bambi as suitable for everyone the movies does not change. Web sites change and in theory would need to be rerated each and every time that they are updated. Which is possibly even more insane than thinking you could put a rating on every site on the internet.

    Besides some people consider nudity to be pornographic, I do not. Some people consider information about sexually transmitted diseases to be unsuitable for children and that children should not know about contraception or abortion.

    I will not have anyone telling my child what they can and cannot know.


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