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New group to develop package for Internet content selection

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), in which MIT plays a major role, has announced that under its auspices a group of 22 organizations and companies is working to develop a "viewpoint-neutral" technology that would allow individuals to control the online material that can be received through their personal computers.

Called Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), the standard is expected to be available royalty-free in early 1996, the W3C said in its announcement on Monday, Sept. 11.

The group effort--which involves some of the giants in the field--is the result of a merger of independent efforts by W3C and the Information Highway Parental Empowerment Group (IHPEG) which was formed in July 1995 by Microsoft, Netscape and Progressive Networks. Rob Glaser, IHPEG founder and Progressive Networks president, is chairman of PICS.Mr.

The New York Times, reporting on the announcement, quoted Glaser as saying: "The Internet is at a crucial point now because it's becoming a mass medium. Parents have real concerns and the industry is responding. We are trying to come up with solutions that are wholly consistent with the civil libertarian ethos of the Net and this country's tradition of free speech. We think the Exon bill is exactly the wrong approach."

Mr. Glaser referred to a Senate-passed proposal sponsored by Sen. Jim Exon (D-NE) and Sen. Daniel R. Coats (R-IN) called the Communications Decency Act. It imposes severe penalties on distributors of sexually explicit material on the Internet. Critics say it is overly broad and possibly unconstitutional. The House passed the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, which calls for industry to set standards and develop software for filtering content. A conference committee will attempt to reconcile the two pieces of legislation in the next several weeks.

Mr. Glaser said the IHPEG "is very excited to be working on PICS with the W3C. Having widespread, unified industry participation will significantly accelerate our efforts."

Some incorrect initial news reports said the W3C consortium was seeking to create a rating system, similar to ones used for films, to address the problem of indecent and pornographic materials moving over the Internet.

In reality, the effort is to develop "a viewpoint-neutral technology platform that will empower organizations and individuals to categorize and selectively access information according to their own needs," said Albert Vezza, a member of the PICS steering committee. Mr. Vezza is a senior research scientist and associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, one of the two W3C locations. The other location is the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA), in Rocquencourt, France. The W3C was formed in October of 1994.

Contributing expertise to PICS are: Apple, America Online, AT&T, Center for Democracy and Technology, CompuServe, IBM, IHPEG, Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), Interactive Services Association, MCI, Microsoft, MIT/W3C, Netscape Communications Corp., Open Market, Prodigy Services Co., Progressive Networks, Providence Systems/Parental Guidance, SafeSurf, Spyglass, SurfWatch Software, Time Warner and Viacom's Nickelodeon.

PICS is being developed to realize two broad goals:

  • Catalyze creation of easy-to-use tools that give groups, organizations and companies the ability to develop their own content labeling schemes, which can be shared with and used by their constituencies. Content could be categorized and labeled in a variety of ways, such as current movie ratings or the Library of Congress cataloging system. Additional content categorizations could include pricing, access or copyright restrictions.
  • Build upon existing filtering technologies and catalyze creation of easy-to-use ways to empower individuals to selectively access or block certain content.

PICS is organized into two committees. The PICS Technology Committee is co-chaired by Dr. James S. Miller, research scientist with MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, and Dr. Paul Resnick, member of technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories. The PICS Public Policy/Communications Committee is co-chaired by Brian R. Ek, vice president of public affairs for Prodigy, and Daniel J. Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. The four co-chairs, along with Messrs. Glaser and Vezza, form the PICS Steering Committee.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 1995.

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