Everybody knows that civil liberties groups oppose government content regulation or filtering mandates on the Net. Today, however, a blocking software company has crossed ranks to poke holes in the White House's "virtual toolkit" aimed at keeping youngsters away from lewd Web sites.
Solid Oak Software--the maker of Cybersitter, which screens Net content based on keywords such as "sex" or "breast"--said the Clinton administration's endorsement of site-rating technologies will give parents a false sense of security about where their kids can go on the Net.
Solid Oak's criticism comes one day after President Clinton plugged both blocking software and rating systems during a meeting with a diverse group of librarians, software firms, and Congress members. The working group of about 40 people was set up to forge a new path for kid-safe surfing now that the Communications Decency Act has been deemed unconstitutional.
The White House said future regulation could be avoided if, for example, the PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) was adopted by Netizens. PICS allows organizations, such as the nonprofit Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSACi), to set up site labeling systems. More than 35,000 sites carry RSACi labels that allow parents to filter out violent or sexual content on the Net.
"Our product supports the PICS system, but by trying to impose this on everybody it puts the burden on people who publish anything, not just sexual or violent sites," said Solid Oak president Brian Milburn.
"With ratings alone, you'd have to educate every single person in the world about the fact that ratings are required on Web pages or they won't be accessible from search engines and most browsers," he said. "The bottom line is this is worse than the CDA."
So far, rating systems are completely voluntary, but President Clinton's new seal of approval has free speech advocates on guard for a mandatory system.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) already is working on a bill that would make it illegal to purposely mislabel a site, as well as place liabilities on online content providers that don't rate their sites. In addition, search engines companies such as Lycos have said in the future they may not register sites unless they are labeled. A consortium of high-profile Net companies, including CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM) and Yahoo said they'd adopt a self-regulatory rating system.
But Solid Oak's discontent could be easily conveyed as a marketing ploy or even as hypocritical. After all, the company stands to lose customers if parents choose a rating system over blocking software.
The software maker isn't a favorite of censorship opponents, either. Prior to releasing the latest version of its product last month, parents could not choose what categories of content would be blocked. So educational, medical, and artistic sites were being automatically screened. In addition, parents still can't see a list of sites that are filtered. The company, like others in its market, catches frequent flak for its homosexual category, which limits access to all sites with the words "gay" or " lesbian," for example.
Still, Solid Oak isn't the only one shooting back at yesterday's White House Net content summit. The American Civil Liberties Union, which barely made the guest list for the press conference after the closed-door meeting, is also wary of the administration's new goals.
"Imagine being forced to wear a sandwich board that says 'violent and sexual content' if you want to stand on the street and hand out a pamphlet on domestic abuse," said Don Haines, legislative counsel for the ACLU. "This kind of content-based self-labeling is exactly what the Supreme Court opposed in its recent decision striking down censorship provisions of the Communications Decency Act."
Others who are also skeptical of the Net ratings tide say the systems won't protect kids the way parental involvement can. "Basically, rating is the first step in censorship," said Karen Coyle, a member of the American Library Association and privacy expert with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "Rating really puts a socially-charged judgment on materials. This is not the solution. Clearly what parents have to do is participate with their child's Internet use just like they do with their child's interaction with the outside world."
Rating system administrators contend that they are only one piece of the puzzle, however. They also argue that the government will leave the spread of ratings up to self-regulation as is increasingly done with other sectors of the cyberspace, such as e-commerce.
"The market will take care of itself," said Stephen Balkam, executive director of RSACi. "We're just trying to empower parents as is Solid Oak."
But he added a vote of confidence for new Net laws: "We are interested in Murray's proposal. If someone willfully mislabels a site, making it a criminal offense would be helpful in stopping them."