Put on the Red Light (on PICS)

By Jaron Lanier

We've never before had ratings for general literature. But PICS, which would embed multiple ratings schemes into net-based media, goes even further, conducting a dangerous experiment in the prefragmentation of expression. If PICS becomes part of the standard, it'll be used in unpredictable ways. For example, an overlapping "AND" combination of many different PICS-supported ratings might be used by internet service providers, not just individuals. This could make the net bland like broadcast TV for a great many users, but that's far from the worst possibility.

PICS has the potential to amplify the efficacy of censors by giving them a worldwide collaborative infrastructure for the first time. While rating the vast Internet would be unfeasible for a single restrictive service, this becomes conceivable if it's possible to easily "AND" together the efforts of a hundred such services. Would Fundamentalist ISPs block access to atheist sites? What about repressive nations using PICS to make threatening ideas invisible to their citizens?

PICS could undercut the spirit of the First Amendment in the USA as well; when that amendment was written, you at least had to hear the slightest bit of what some fool was saying on the soapbox before you tuned him out. With PICS, you'd never even know he existed.

Ironically, PICS might also make the stuff we don't want children to see more accessible because it would clearly identify such material. Having a delineated red-light district makes it easier to push porn, not harder.

Single-purpose filter programs under parental control, like NetNanny, are ultimately safer than an untamable mesh of dubious universal barriers. Without ratings, the Internet forces humanity to see itself as a whole, warts and all. With ratings, it could encourage an unprecedentedly detailed balkanization of ideas and images.

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