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The World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed its Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) to enable parents to block their children’s access to websites whose content the parents deem objectionable. PICS establishes a standard for "labeling" websites on the basis of their content and for creating label-reading software to block access to some websites and permit access to others based upon the labels.
PICS itself is "viewpoint-neutral." Anyone can develop a set of content-rating criteria (identifying "hate speech," for example, or "excessive nudity"), create a labeling vocabulary, evaluate Internet sites, and use the PICS specifications to label websites accordingly.
Labels are affixed to electronic documents such as home pages on the World Wide Web by website owners or third parties — parent groups, religious groups, consumer groups — who can locate their labels on agreed-upon sites. Software capable of reading labels in the PICS format may be developed independently of these labels. This software automatically checks for the labels and blocks access to sites based upon the labels.
Thus, if a user's software has been configured to block electronic documents labeled as "excessively violent" by a site-rating service that [[screen]s websites for such content, it will deny access to any site to which the rating service's "excessive violence" label is affixed. The user can override the software's action only through use of a password.
The use of PICS technology for content-blocking purposes is proliferating. PICS technology could be adapted to enhance online privacy. Industry groups, privacy advocates, and consumer groups could use existing PICS technology to create rating systems based upon the privacy-protectiveness of websites' information practices, and these systems could then be used to block access to sites lacking strong protections.
If, for example, a consumer group created an index of privacy-protective websites based upon a review of their information practices, a user could set her PICS-compatible browser to allow access only to sites labeled as being in the index. The label-reading software would block access to sites that were not on the list.
PICS technology might be extended further to allow more sophisticated notice and choice options. The prerequisite to extending PICS technology would be a standard format for describing information practices and user preferences as to how their information should be used. A user would set his preferences (e.g., "no restrictions on use" or "no transfers to third parties") on his computer with software that employs this format. Websites would similarly give notice of their information practices (e.g., "we do not sell or rent our customer list to other companies"). The user's browser would be capable of automatically comparing his preferences with sites' practices, as the user moves around the World Wide Web.
If a particular website's practices matched the user's preferences, notice and choice would occur "seamlessly" in the background, and the user would proceed to enter the site. If there were a mismatch, the user's software would alert him to that fact. The website could respond by providing an explanation for the mismatch, or offering the user an opportunity to view its information policy. The website could offer the user incentives such as discounts in exchange for the user's agreement to accept the site's information practices. Finally, extended PICS technology could theoretically enable this sort of negotiation about notice and choice to be automated.