A Message to the PICS-interest Mailing List

Yesterday I received an email message on the W3C’s PICS-interest group’s mailing list from Eduardo Lima Martinez who asked:

I’m building a website for people over 16 years of age. This not is a porn site, but shows raw images (“curcus pretty girls doing ugly things”) not suitable for kids.

He went on to ask:

What are the correct PICS labels for this site?. I do not read/write correctly the english language. I do not understand the terms of HTTP headers “Protocol: {…}” and “PICS-Label: (…)” Can you guide me? Can you show me a sample site that has the correct PICS labels?

Leaving aside the rather unsavoury nature of the content, I was surprised to receive this email as I was unaware that I was still subscribed to the PICS-interest list.  However looking at the archives for the list as can be seen there have been a handful of postings to this list over the past five years or so, several of which are just conference announcements or spam. As seems to be the case for quite a number of mailing lists, this one has fallen into disuse. But the first legitimate posting to the list since April 2009 and the subsequent responses caused me to reflect on the rise and fall of the W3C PICS standard.

Revisiting PICS

PICS, the Platform for Internet Content Selection, was developed in 1996 in response to the proposed Communications Decency Act (CDA) US legislation. As described in encyclopedia.com:

The first version of this amendment, sponsored by Senator James Exon without hearings and with little discussion among committee members, would have made it illegal to make any indecent material available on computer networks“.

In parallel with arguments that such legislation was unconstitutional the W3C responded by the development of a standard which provide a decentralised way of labelling Web resources.  It would then be possible to configure client software to block access to resources which are deemed to be offensive or inappropriate for the end user.  This software could be managed by a parent for a home computer or by an appropriate body in a school context.  There was also an infrastructure to manage the content labelling schemes which complemented the W3C’s technical developments with, as described in Wikipedia entry,  the RSAC being founded in 1994 to provice labelling of video games and, later, the RSACi providing a similar role for online resources. This organization was closed in 1999 and reformed into the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA). In 2007 ICRA became part of FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute)  – an organisation which, as described in an email message by Dan Brickley, no longer has any activities in this technology area or support for their older work. As Dan pointed out to Eduardo “there is no direct modern successor to the RSACi/ICRA PICS work to recommend to you“.

What Are The Lessons?

In 1996 we had a standard (actually a number of W3C Recommendation)  which provided a decentralised approach for labelling Internet content. As described above there were international organisations involved in the provision and management of labelling schemes and there were various applications which provided support for the standards including Internet Explorer, with Microsoft providing a tutorial on how to use PICS.

But what went wrong? Why did this standard and accompanying infrastructure fail to be sustainable?  Is there no longer a need to be able to manage access to pornographic, violent and related resources? Do we have a better standards-based solution?

I think it is clear that there is still a need for a solution to the problems which PICS sought to address – and the various filtering solutions which are found in schools do not provide the flexibility of a standards-based approach such as that provided by PICS.

But perhaps the cost of managing PICS labels was too expensive – after all metadata is expensive to create and manage. Of perhaps PICS was developed too soon in W3C’s life, before XML provided a generalised language for developing metadata applications?  But would replacing PICS’s use of “{” by XML’s “<” and “>”  and the accompanying portfolio of XML standards really had a significant difference?

Dan Brickley pointed out that PICS is largely obsolete technology and its core functionality is been rebuilt around RDF:

1. Roughly PICS label schemes are now RDF Schemas (or more powerfully, OWL Ontologies)
2. PICS Label Bureaus are replaced by Web services that speak W3C’s SPARQL language for querying RDF – see http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-sparql-query/
3. PICS’ ability to make labels for all pages sharing a common URL pattern is addressed by POWDER – see http://www.w3.org/2007/powder/

Hmm, should Eduardo be looking at POWDER – a W3C standard which “has superseded PICS as the recommended method for describing Web sites and building applications that act on such descriptions“.

But perhaps this is an area in which open standards are not appropriate.  As Phil Archer pointed out in the discussion on the PICS-intertest list:

there really isn’t any advantage in adding labels, whether in PICS or POWDER, for child protection purposes. All the filters that people actually use work well without using labels at all. It’s an idea that has long had its day. If interested, see [1, 2]” [Note reference 2 is a PDF file]

I guess the organisations involved in developing the PICS standard and tools which supported PICS and organisations which labelled their resources will have failed to se a return on their investment for supporting this open standard.  Will it be any different with POWDER, I wonder?  What is different this time?