Gonzales proposes mandatory Web pornography rating system

April 21st, 2006

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has called for Congress to require a mandatory website self-rating system to “prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet” in remarks made at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The proposed law, the Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006, would require commercial Web sites to place FTC designated “marks and notices” on sexually explicit pages. Gonzales described sexually explicit as covering depictions of everything from sexual intercourse and masturbation to “sadistic abuse” and close-ups of fully clothed genital regions.

Of course, we’ve been down this road before, or at least a very similar one, in PICS, the W3C’s Platform for Internet Content Selection. The PICS effort began in the winter of 1995 as a system for associating metadata with Internet content. While it was designed to be used with multiple vocabularies, its original impetus was to label web pages to help parents and teachers control access by children and students.

PICS data was metadata and most of the W3C’s early RDF work was motivated by PICS. A product was an RDF schema for PICS ratings. The idea of associating metadata with web pages quickly grew beyond PICS at the W3C and produced the Semantic Web activity. At the same time, the vocabularies that groups developed to rate “objectionable” content seemed to descend into weird territory. See this PICS vocabulary developed by the Internet Content Rating Association which allows you to describe a page as depicting disturbing subjects like “passionate kissing”, “deliberate damage to objects” and “gambling”. Sounds Like just another episode of Desperate Housewives to me.

Work on PICS and the idea of using it to rate content for audience appropriateness ended at least five years ago. There were many problems: gaining consensus on rating vocabularies, getting sites to voluntarily rate their content, deciding how to rate a given page, and what to do with sited that failed to rate or mis-rated their pages. These problems seemed insurmountable. The proposed law that Alberto Gonzales is advocating solves some of the problems by (1) having the FTC decide on a rating vocabulary, (2) making ratings mandatory for some sites and (3) throwing people in jail if they don’t do it right. I guess the only wiggle room left is whether your web page is art or porn, but a federal prosecutor and judge can help make that decision for you.

This ain’t gonna fly.


Here is a transcript of the Attorney General’s speech.