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An experiment in Internet self-regulation

The research of Elisabeth Staksrud may determine what additional laws European governments think are necessary to regulate cyberspace.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden--As an employee of the Norwegian government, Elisabeth Staksrud's job title used to be official film censor.

Now, the 30-year-old social scientist has an additional job description: project coordinator for the SAFT program, a government-managed Internet project funded by the European Commission. SAFT, which stands for Safety Awareness Facts and Tools, is something of an experiment in Internet self-regulation and comes as European national governments and the commission itself are weighing whether additional laws are necessary.

Staksrud is no stranger to this idea--she gave her graduate thesis at the University of Oslo the provocative title of "How to censor the Internet." The thesis, which analyzed Singapore's ban on scores of overseas Web sites that have controversial political or sexual content, concluded that "Singapore's model can be used by other nations that aim to regulate the information flow on the Internet."

SAFT's stated purpose is "raising awareness on the positive potential and the dangers of the Internet to youths and kids." It also serves as a kind of liaison between technology firms, Internet service providers and European governments.

After a recent conference in Stockholm, CNET News.com spoke with Skaksrud about censorship, children and legislation.

Q: You're a film censor. But you say you believe in free speech on the Internet. How do you reconcile that?
A: That's just part of my job. Giving age limits is about giving advice to parents. We have this parent guardian rule that says younger people can go to certain movies--but only if they're accompanied by an adult.

You're okay with being called a censor?
Yes. We can ban movies. We haven't done it for mainstream movies for years. If someone is going to show it in a movie theater, we have to see it first. It's a cool job, huh? Surf on the Internet and screen movies before they're shown.

What's your biggest worry about children and the Internet?
Hysterical parents.

Why? They're demanding unnecessary legislation?
The problem isn't the Internet. The Internet is just a technology. It facilitates communication, and it can be used for good and bad. The problem is if fear gets the upper hand. If something bad happens, the

The problem isn't the Internet. The Internet is just a technology.
most important thing is to be prepared, to know what to do--and if you're a child, to call your parents. Fear often creates a sense of silence.

Describe your job.
I'm the project coordinator of SAFT, which is a European Commission-funded project to coordinate awareness efforts that involve the Internet. Half of our budget comes from partner organizations, including national governments and industry. We do research and awareness efforts with participating nations Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Ireland. We also try to coordinate and facilitate dialogue between industry and nongovernmental organizations and governments. When it comes to the Internet, somehow, you have all these different entities having to work together.

You've been detailed to this project from the Norwegian board of film censors?
Originally, I was hired by the board to do Internet policy work. We initiated this project, and we applied for money and formed this consortium. Right now, I'm on leave from my regular job to do this project, though I'm still there part time.

Your regular job is to rate movies. Without a rating--an official government stamp--they can't be shown, sold or rented, right?
I do work as a film classifier. Just before I came here, I rated "Kill Bill."

What did you rate it?
We had a split decision in the classification board. There was a division between marking it as appropriate for age 15 or age 18.

How did you vote?
I can't tell you. It's a secret to protect our classifiers. If you let in a movie that's too graphic, like genitals in motion, people will call and leave death threats. Reading Bible verses--that kind of thing.

Do you chop out offensive parts of movies?
They used to do that. The board doesn't do that anymore. My colleague has this letter from Stanley Kubrick. He was furious that the board wanted to cut his movies. And he wrote this letter personally.

There was also "Monty Python's Life of Brian." When that movie was released, the Norwegian board of film classification actually deemed it to be blasphemy and banned it. What was funny is that the Swedes, when they released the movie, said, "This is the film that was too funny for the Norwegians," and they sold tons and tons of tickets. We eventually allowed it but came out with a sign that said it's fiction and not about Jesus Christ.

About two weeks ago, we lifted a ban on all mainstream movies that had been forbidden or cut. That was for our 90-year anniversary. How's that for a birthday gift?

So you consider yourself a free speech advocate?
Actually, it's not a problem. Rating movies for children has to do with protecting them from harm. If you say, "This movie is probably not appropriate for anyone below 15," that's not considered censorship. That's considered protection. But on my day job, we strongly advise against censorship measures like filters.

What European nations are pushing Internet filters?
Mainly the United Kingdom, which goes along with having more similarities with the trigger buttons of the Americans. The major filters are produced in the United States.

Is U.S. filtering software adapted for the European market?
The white and black lists are based on American wording. They're created by and sold by American companies--which is ridiculous for us, coming from different languages and cultures. There are so many different examples of crazy stuff that's being filtered out.

Even inside Europe, you have different cultural values and hot buttons. Can you give me some examples?
You have the typical ones. There's the Anglo-Saxon hot button, which is nudity. Scandinavians tend to care less about it at all. Bad language is hardly an issue, and nudity is something we don't perceive as dangerous or bad. Though in Norway, hard-core pornography is not allowed. We have issues with racist speech, though the threshold for conviction is very high. Blasphemy is a trigger button for some parts of the country because of the state Lutheran religion.

What did you find in your survey of European attitudes toward the Internet?
We interviewed 11,000 parents in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Iceland. A total of 12 percent said they use blocking software.

There's not a public outcry for filters. One of the reasons is that parents are more afraid of other things, or their concern is at other levels.
There's not a public outcry for filters. One of the reasons is that parents are more afraid of other things, or their concern is at other levels. The girls tend not to have any rules, because they never do anything wrong. The boys tend to get rules from their fathers, but they're general, such as, "Don't do anything stupid."

What we also found from the survey is that most parents will say they have a very good knowledge of what their kids are doing. Of course, when we spoke with children, we found that that's not true.

Are you talking about pornography? Or peer-to-peer networks and copyright infringement?
What our survey says is that kids have a very high level of conscience themselves. They have their own rules about what's acceptable and unacceptable themselves. Especially when they're 14 or 15, they feel that this is their arena, and they know what's going on. They're not so likely to listen to their parents.

At what age do children start using the Internet?
Norway has the earliest Internet adoption; Ireland the slowest. Overall, you have 34 percent starting before they're 8 years old. Boys usually start when they're between 5 and 8 years old.

What's the next big issue or concern for SAFT?
It's hard to say. One of the biggest issues we're focused on is personal information. That's usually something that's forgotten in all the discussions about pornography and chatting and meeting people online. In the United States, you have the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. We don't have that sort of thing. It's a big issue we need to focus on.

We have created a portal in each participating country. It has a list of check boxes you fill out, and it creates a legally binding claim, based on the European Data Directive, that you can send to any entity, demanding disclosure of how they treat general personal information and how to treat yours. What we're doing now is developing a program with the Norwegian Board of Education and the University of Oslo that will be implemented in the 8th grade of all Norwegian schools. All 8th graders will learn how to use the tool and generate these claims.

They can be sent to both Internet and offline companies?
Whatever. It applies offline. Anyone who stores any personal information would have to comply with these rules. The beauty of this system is that you tick off the boxes, and it generates the claim, referring to the law that says they have 30 days to comply. If you don't store any kind of personal information, you can just make an `X' and sign the paper, and you're fine.

It's not just for kids?
It's for anyone. It's working really well. It tends to make people aware and the industry aware. It creates transparency. We also have a cookie opener that displays what information your browser leaks and a port scanner that says what services such as a peer-to-peer network client are running on your computer.

Is SAFT considering how to respond to pornographic spam?
I think that pornographic spam, as is spam in general, a problem--and obviously extremely annoying. As we know from our research, children have at least twice as many e-mail accounts as their parents know of. They'll have Hotmail-like accounts their parents don't know about, so it is a problem.