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Use Ratings, Not Censors On Internet

Bill Gates New York Times

Around the world, the Internet is inspiring many emotions - excitement, hope and more than a little outrage.

Controversy is arising over the ease with which objectionable material can be accessed electronically.

Smut, libel and stolen intellectual property are common.

Equally controversial are the steps some governments are taking to limit access to certain kinds of information on the Internet.

Objections may be loudest in the United States, where lately denizens of the Internet have grown accustomed to seeing blue ribbons adorning many web pages. These ribbons are a plea for the right to free speech in cyberspace.

It’s a right the U.S. Congress abridged to an unfortunate extent when it recently passed the sweeping Telecommunications Reform Act. This legislation took many positive steps, such as opening the industry to broad competition and encouraging investment in modern network infrastructure.

But the most striking evidence that Congress went overboard was language in a part of the new law called the Communications Decency Act which could make it a felony - punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine - to discuss topics such as detailed information about birth control, AIDS prevention and how to get a legal abortion.

The Clinton administration has vowed not to enforce this provision, which is being contested now in federal court in Philadelphia.

Some people think the Internet should be wide open. They believe interactive networks are a world apart in which copyright, libel, pornography and confidentiality laws do not apply. This is a naive dream which fails to recognize that the Internet is going to be a vital part of mainstream life, not a lawless backwater.

At the other extreme, some people think the Internet should be tightly controlled. They would ruin the Internet in the name of reining it in.

We must find a balance that lets the Internet be both open and sheltered from abuse.

A web page devoted to the blue-ribbon campaign got it right: “The voice of reason knows that free speech doesn’t equate to sexual harassment, abuse of children or the breeding of hatred or intolerance. We insist that any material that’s legal in bookstores, newspapers or public libraries must be legal online.”

Governments have long tried to keep unwanted information outside of national borders. Until very recently, Japan considered almost any picture or video that displayed full frontal nudity to be taboo. Dozens of housewives equipped with sandpaper were employed to scratch the objectionable material from pictures in imported magazines such as Playboy.

But attitudes have changed so dramatically that many popular Japanese weekly magazines now include photographs of nude females. Presumably the sandpaper trade is a dying profession.

In the emerging world of interactive networks, companies that distribute packets of electronic information cannot be asked to filter the content of what they carry, any more than a telephone company can be asked to take responsibility for everything that is spoken on a telephone system.

So how can authorities, including parents in any country, effectively filter access to information on the Internet?

The best solution I know of is for authorized organizations to review, categorize and rate the con web pages so that software can filter out that which is deemed inappropriate.

Ratings are not a new idea. Movies are already rated in many countries, although to varying standards.

In the United States, where Congress has mandated that new televisions soon be equipped with a “V-chip” to allow parents to block unsuitable shows, the commercial networks are moving toward a ratings system.

Ratings are rapidly coming to the Internet. CompuServe’s new WOW service allows parents to limit their children to approved Internet sites and Microsoft is among companies building support for ratings into forthcoming web-browsing software.

No rating scheme is perfect. But a rating system will work most of the time and is the best approach I can imagine that doesn’t unduly interfere with the great benefits of the Internet.

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