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Vezza testifies on behalf of PICS for Internet

Albert Vezza, associate director of the MIT's Laboratory for Computer Sciences and chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium, supported use of a new "platform for Internet content selection" (PICS) developed at MIT, on which multiple rating systems can coexist before a three-judge federal panel April 12.

PICS is designed to encourage control without censorship, Mr. Vezza said.

The jurists were hearing a constitutional challenge to the new Communications Decency Act, which imposes criminal penalties on those who make "indecent" material available to children. The law does not define "indecent."

Mr. Vezza testified that PICS will allow parents to select what their children can access based on labels which assign a rating to content. These labels can be created by a publisher or creator of content, or by a third-party rating service, he said.

Mr. Vezza, a senior research scientist in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was the final witness presented by the plaintiffs in the case of the American Library Association Inc. v. the United States Department of Justice.The Library Association case has been consolidated with one brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. A number of other groups are parties to the challenge.

Presiding over the hearing in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania were Dolores K. Sloviter, chief judge of the US Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and US District Judges Ronald L. Buckwalter and Stewart Dalzell.

Any appeal of their eventual ruling would be made directly to the Supreme Court.

The MIT expert told the court that flexibility would be encouraged by the PICS rating system. The goal, he said, "is to give individual users control over the content that is accessible [and] to open their homes to the Internet while still protecting their children from material that is inconsistent with that family's values."

Under PICS standards, he said, information publishers may self-label, just as makers of toys currently label products as "Unsafe for Children Under 5," for instance.

Additionally, just as consumer magazines rate products, third-party ratings of information resources also could be made available, Mr. Vezza explained. A children's advocacy group, for example, could label a site inappropriate for children under 10, but fine for those over 12. Another organization could rate the exact same information as inappropriate for anyone under 18, he said.

"With multiple perspectives to choose from, parents and other supervisors can control access based on labels created by rating services that reflect their goals and values, and ignore all labels created by others," Mr. Vezza said.

The goal, he said, is to control information at the receiving end of the communications, the same way as the voluntary rating system used in the motion picture industry helps filmgoers.

PICS was created by a broad cross-section of companies from the computer, communications and content industries, as well as trade associations and public interest groups which joined together less than a year ago. Mr. Vezza said the system is designed to be easy to use, flexible and effective and should come into use this summer.

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