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After CDA ruling, Net polices itself

Not content to wait for a court resolution of the Communications Decency Act, cybercitizens and software companies are taking regulatory matters into their own hands.

Ray Soular is a registered Republican who campaigned for Ronald Reagan and once served as youth chairman for the Republican National Committee in Los Angeles County. The father of a 7-year-old daughter, he fully believes in protecting children against offensive words and pictures on the Internet.

He does not, however, believe in the Communications Decency Act.

"Government censorship doesn't work. We can do a better job using new technology than using the old model," said Soular, an amateur musician who is using his creative talents to think up other ways to accomplish the same goals. "The Internet was originally built to be like a tank. Now it will be designed to be a family vehicle, complete with child-safety seats."

The possible routes that all children can travel safely are only now being charted. But the mission of online pioneers like Soular, who started the SafeSurf Rating Standard to identify potentially dangerous sites along the way, has taken on new urgency since the rejection of the CDA by a special three-judge federal panel. [See CNET special report]

Although an appeal of the ruling in ACLU vs. Janet Reno is still possible, cybercitizens and industry executives are not waiting for the issue to wend its way through the judicial maze of due process. Instead, they are taking firm hold of the regulatory reins themselves, using the laws of science and technology to police the Internet--and in real time.

The implications of this grass-roots movement are profound, for it poses a question that only a few years ago was confined to science fiction and political theory: whether any international community, real or virtual, is capable of self-rule. And the issue of free speech is just the beginning.

Already, Nasdaq's National Association of Securities Dealers monitors online stock trading and dispenses fines for violations of self-imposed rules; Lycos and the Direct Marketing Association have proposed guidelines for advertising aimed at children; CommerceNet and the World Wide Web Consortium have introduced an initiative to standardize payments for online purchases; companies offering powerful search engine services are weighing privacy and national security restrictions, and at least one is planning to ban hate material.

"The Internet is a wonderful education tool; it can put the equivalent of the Library of Congress on a student's desktop," said Peter Nickerson, developers of Seattle-based BESS Internet Filtering Services, in a statement released after the CDA ruling. "But it can also put a library of Playboys and books like The Terrorist's Handbook there too. Two bomb scares in western Washington this spring have demonstrated the possible negative aspects of Internet access."

The steps necessary for electronic self-governance will require discipline and participation in the truest form of digital democracy, because it can succeed only with the cooperation of the millions of sites online--a feat that is certain to tax even the strongest supporters of a free Internet.

As the offline world knows well, however, international agreements are a delicate art form for even the most skilled diplomats--and they can get complicated in a hurry with something as unpredictable as a new form of global communication. Leaving aside the battles in the United States, disputes have arisen from Germany to Singapore over controversies ranging from pornography to neo-Nazi literature.

Not surprisingly, many remain unconvinced that Internet self-rule is possible. "The industry is now starting to realize what a mess they've gotten themselves into," said Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel of the National Law Center for Children and Families, a leading supporter of the CDA. "They're going to have a hard time sorting out the compliance issue."

The obstacles aren't deterring Albert Vezza and other representatives of the World Wide Web Consortium, which began work on a technical standard to help govern the darker corners of cyberspace long before Senator James Exon's staff wrote the first draft of the Communications Decency Act. That standard, the Platform for Internet Content Selection, was finalized and adopted by consortium members last month.

"There has to be some buy-in to the system," said Vezza, associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We've been talking to many international organizations and governments, and they will probably go down that road."

Still, even those who are trying to codify the rating scales necessary for the PICS standard to work acknowledge that the systems are far from foolproof at this stage.

"If we get complaints, we will go out and walk the sites in question and make sure that they have implemented the rating correctly," said Steve Shannon, coordinator at the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), an independent not-for-profit organization that is devising a rating system based on its original charge of controlling violence on video games. "As far as someone lying, we can't stop them from lying. We would do a spot check and ask them to re-rate."

That's precisely what worries people like Rick Campbell, who is a member of Families Against Internet Censorship. Although he, too, opposes the CDA, Campbell nonetheless does not trust others to determine the viewing standards for his family--not even the ostensibly neutral World Wide Web Consortium.

"We support things like SurfWatch and so forth that put the decision-making back to the parents. If I have to trust the provider to rate things, then I have a problem with that," he said. "I don't expect Bob Guccione [publisher of Penthouse magazine] to say his stuff is bad for kids. He was on TV yesterday saying he thinks all sorts of sexual material is perfectly appropriate for kids."

Soular disagrees. The chairman of SafeSurf Rating Standard, a commercial competitor to RSAC, said sites will be forced to rate themselves for a very practical reason, one of basic economics: No rating means no listing, and no listing means no business.

"The whole thing is voluntary, but look at how many people go out and register with search engines," he noted. "People want to be seen on the Internet."

Steps to support systems like Safesurf and RSAC area already being taken in Washington and Silicon Valley. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) has proposed the Online Parental Control Act, legislation that would encourage the use of existing technologies to block material deemed harmful to minors. The bill, introduced as an amendment to the CDA, would impose fines on those who did not make a good-faith effort to comply with filtering standards.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission this month agreed not to impose regulations governing the Internet for at least six months because the technology is moving so fast, according to executives of parental-control software firms. Other regulatory bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, have also deferred to self-imposed standards in some cases.

In the corporate sector, Microsoft and Netscape Communications have taken active roles in pursuing the formation and adherence to the PICS standard. Both software giants have agreed to embed support for PICS in future versions of the Internet Explorer and Navigator browsers for the Web.

"This is going to be one of the ways that Web sites can make their information available to the public and ensure that the appropriate people are viewing that information so in fact playboy.com is implementing PICS 1.0," said Paul Balle, product manager for the Microsoft's Internet Explorer Team. "If you use Internet Explorer 3.0, you could set ratings and effectively block someone from viewing the playboy.com page."

With so many interests at work against the exposure of offensive material--from politics and morality to the simple bottom line--many Netizens are confident that cyberspace can be made safe for minors and everyone else.

Soular, for one, can't wait. "It's the dream of every musician to communicate with the entire world," said the Southern California entrepreneur, who plays both the guitar and the piano. "And with every minute, my daughter is missing a chance to surf the Net."

[C|NET SPECIAL REPORT: CDA rejected in landmark ruling | Decision may not be appealed | Supreme Court would likely back ruling | CDA supporters vow to fight | Netizens rejoice on newsgroups | Timeline tracks law's path | Attorney assessments on CNET radio]

The full text of the Communications Decency Act ruling is available on the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the ACLU Web sites. A complete listing of recent First Amendment and other cases decided by the Supreme Court is available through a searchable index maintained by Case Western Reserve. An archive of RealAudio files of Supreme Court oral arguments and opinions can be heard at Northwestern University's Academic Technologies Department.

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