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Your comments and views on the Internet Watch Foundation Proposals for Developing Rating Systems for the Internet at a UK level (soon to turn into a global system)

Please keep them coming to Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK)

Judgement Time on Rating Systems

Last Updated 08 April, 1998

Latest News: US Judge Sets Highest Legal Hurdle For Using Blocking Software in Libraries, April 7, 1997

In his decision, Judge Leonie Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia said that the government had "misconstrued the nature of the Internet" and held that "the Library Board may not adopt and enforce content-based restrictions on access to protected Internet speech" unless it meets the highest level of constitutional scrutiny.

Background Reading:

Internet Watch Foundation web site is at and see the consultation document entitled "Rating and Filtering Internet Content - A United Kingdom Perspective" (March 1998). Read also the related press release.

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) Report, ‘Who Watches the Watchmen: Internet Content Rating Systems, and Privatised Censorship,’ which was launched in November 1997, is available at

The report was published well before the IWF consultation document came out and still remains relevant and is a critique of the development of rating systems. Read also the press coverage of thsi report from C/Net News.Com, U.K. group fights Net censorship, C/Net news.Com, November 11, 1997.

Internet Watch Foundation launches a consultation paper on "Rating and Filtering Internet Content - A United Kingdom Perspective" - March 1998. See also the Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) CensorWare pages for further information.

Replies & Statements:


Send reply to:
From: "richard petersen"
Copies to:,,
Subject: Rating Report Comment
Date sent: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 15:59:14 -0800

I am not sure it is reassuring that the British are as messed up about Internet ratings as the Americans. The question you should be asking is are ratings necessary? Until a convincing argument can be made that there is a problem that needs a solution you need to concentrate on examining the extent of the problem. In the United States it was once against the law to send information about birth control and about abortion through the mail. We now look at this as being silly and impractical. We do not require book publishers to rate their books (though there has been a sorted history of book censorship). Why in each new medium we have to presume that someone has to "protect" someone else from information? It is the height of arrogance to presume that we know what is best for someone else. If parents are concerned about what their children see on the Internet let them observe what their children watch just as they might monitor what books or TV their children watch.

Perhaps the benefits of these attempts at Internet censorship is that they will serve as an object lesson for young people about just how authoritarian and controlling some members of the adult community still are.

A good source for a kids prospective:

PEACEFIRE - the Teen Net anti-censorship Alliance

Richard Petersen

Date sent: Thu, 05 Mar 1998 15:28:49 +0000
To:, "Yaman Akdeniz"
From: "Danny O’Brien"
Subject: Virgin Net’s response to the IWF’s proposals

Press Information

4 March 1998

Virgin disputes worthiness of new Internet rating system

Virgin Net’s MD, David Clarke today questioned government plans to introduce a rating system which will allegedly meet parents’ concerns about Internet content that is unsuitable for children. The voluntary ratings system was launched today by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Clarke explained: " The report’s intentions are admirable but the suggestions made are just not practical. The only viable solution for shielding unsavoury information from children is for parents to educate their children and control their viewing, in the same way that parents oversee what their children watch on television and which papers and magazines they read.

He continued: "There are strict checks already in place by the businesses, which run the porn industry. "Adult Check" security ensures that children do not have access, and the requirement of credit card payment also excludes children from the sites. Software, such as Cybersitter is also a very useful tool that parents can use to restrict access to unsavoury information.

"It is also unclear as to where legitimate information fits into these categories. For example, a great deal of information on news sites could be construed as violent, or unsuitable for children, but should people below the age of 18 be deterred from reading these?

"I’m also afraid that a ratings system would attract children to search out sites unsuitable for them, rather than deter them from viewing. My major worry is that parents are lulled into a false sense of security and believe that they no longer need to supervise their children’s’ activities on the Internet, allowing them free access onto the World Wide Web."

Virgin Net was launched in November 1996 to provide a consumer friendly Internet service to UK users. Since then it has attracted more than 100,000 customers and provides a range of services covering the areas of: News, Sport, Entertainment, Cinema listings, Health and Education, along with members’ clubs, newsgroups, e-mail, Web space, searchable news archives and full Internet search facilities.

For any press enquiries, please contact:

Lisa Francis, PR Manager, Virgin Net

E-mail:, Tel: +44 171 479 4488, Web:

Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA UK) Press Release
3 March, 1998


Representatives from ISPA are showing their support for a Government review of illegal and harmful content on the Internet today. At a press conference at the Department of Trade and Industry, Laurence Blackall, Chairman of the Internet Services Providers Association, ISPA UK, said "the Internet provides people with endless opportunities for communication and obtaining useful information. We have devoted much effort towards minimising negative use of the Internet and promoting its positive aspects." He continued to speak about the work ISPA had done to promote safe use of the Internet.

ISPA UK funds and otherwise supports the Internet Watch Foundation.

ISPA members agree to remove harmful or illegal material found on their servers once they receive notification of the existence of such material from the IWF.

ISPA’s code of conduct expressly promotes the use of client filtering and rating systems.

ISPA is involved in INCORE a European wide project to develop rating and filtering software for Internet content.

Mr Blackall added that many ISPA members sent new dial up customers filtering software along with information on management of access for minors. There were many premium services or family packages offered by ISPs. He explained that these allowed users choice, in terms of the material they or their dependants received from the Internet. He added that some ISPs also filtered news groups at source.

Notes for Editors

1.The UK Internet Services Providers Association (ISPA UK) was set up in 1995 as a trade association to represent UK companies in the Internet sector. ISPA web-page:

2.For other additional details please contact Nicholas Lansman on 0171 976 0679 or better still email:

If you do NOT want to receive ISPA bulletins and press releases, or feel that someone else would benefit from this information, in addition or in place of you, please email with their details, and any requests to be removed from the list.


Date sent: Thu, 5 Mar 1998 01:35:49 +0000
From: Internet Freedom
Subject: PRESS RELEASE: Ratings

Press Release



The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) published a report yesterday outlining its proposals for a system to control the distribution of content on the Internet. The system makes use of the censorship technology PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) and extends the categorisation system developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSACi). In addition to familiar categories such as sex, nudity, bad language and violence, the system proposed by the IWF will include categories covering the provision of personal information, financial transactions, intolerance, and subjects like drugs or suicide.

The report places great emphasis on consumer choice, arguing that the system, "puts control of what is acceptable in the hands of the user rather than an external agency or, worse, government". This language is in stark contrast to more familiar forms of censorship, such as the West Yorkshire police’s recent demands that the University of Central England in Birmingham destroy copies of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s book of homo-erotic art. However the consequences of the widespread adoption of their proposals have more far reaching consequences for the accessibility of material on the Net.

Unlike film classifications, Net rating schemes like those proposed by IWF involve attaching hidden tags to pages. This information is processed by software to prevent access to particular material. Far from being just a rating scheme, it is a mechanism by which authorities can at last gain control of material transmitted on the Net whilst simultaneously shifting the burden of censorship onto Net users. By requiring Net users to co-operate in the censorship process by having their material rated, it makes it easy for regulatory bodies, access providers, employers, libraries, Universities and Internet caf#233#s to control what users can see.

Contrary to Internet Watch’s suggestions, ratings systems have a direct impact on Net freedom precisely because they are designed to restrict what users may see on the Net. Users themselves abdicate responsibility for judging Net material to ratings authorities and Net software. As Simson Garfinkel from Hotwired described it, ratings schemes represent "the most effective global censorship technology ever designed".

Like film classification, rating material will mean that a vast body of unrated material (currently the majority of Net material) is effectively censored. Unlike more traditional forms of censorship, like the banning of Robert Mapplethorpe’s book, or the restrictions on the film Crash, users may not even know of the existence of material that is screened out.

Even if we ignore the potential use of such a system by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to screen material before Net users get the opportunity to decide for themselves, the rating system proposed by the IWF is indicative of a profoundly conservative attitude to the Net.

The new category of Tolerance is a case in point. This category offers Net users the ability to screen out intolerant opinions aimed at groups defined by gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality and so on. The IWF provides a ready made categorisation of such views on a scale from 0 to 4. The scale covers strengths of opinion ranging from views that "imply or assert a degree of inferiority" to any view which "advocates action which would cause physical, psychological or economic harm or violence against the group".

It appears that in the virtual world offered by the IWF users will be protected even from differences of opinion. Had we had access to such a system in recent weeks we would presumably have been blissfully unaware of the US and UK’s threats of military action against Iraq or Chris Patten’s views of the Chinese government expressed in his new book.

Adults may have a duty to protect children from the nastier aspects of life but we also have a duty not to stick our heads in the sand. In the real world violent disagreement, inequality and injustice continue regardless of what we do to their electronic depiction on the Internet, yet the IWF is not alone in devoting undue amounts of energy to screening out images and words which disturb us.

Jason Burton, a spokesman for Internet Freedom commented:

"The adoption of the IWF’s proposals extend censorship to a whole number of new areas. Dressing up censorship in the garb of consumer choice doesn’t stop it from being just that: the most advanced technological form of censorship known to mankind. Widespread adoption of these proposal will make the Net about as exciting as Postman Pat".

For further comment call Chris Ellison on +44 (0) 956 129 518.

From: "Malcolm Hutty"
Date sent: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 17:04:44 +0100
Subject: NEWS RELEASE: DTI review of Internet Watch Foundation

Date: 3rd March 1998

Press Release: For Immediate Release


LONDON: DTI Minister Barbara Roche today announced a review to consider controlling Internet publications that contain legal adult erotica or racism. Speaking at a conference to report on the first year of operation of the Internet Watch Foundation she said that said the review would expand the organisation’s remit. "The government is not complacent about legal but harmful material" she said. The review would set future goals and priorities which would include strategies to combat:


Internet Watch produced a report of its first year of operations which was praised by Ministers. Internet Watch runs a hotline for the reporting of child pornography on the Internet, which it then seeks to have removed. As a result, several prosecutions have occurred in the UK despite most such material originating abroad.

Home Office Minister Lord Williams had a different viewpoint: "Of course, every prosecution is in a sense a failure of regulation"

Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain spokesman Malcolm Hutty saw this as a threatening position to take. "The only thing Lord Williams could want that didn’t depend on prosecutions is a system of prior restraint. This is a serious threat to implement a censorship infrastructure."


David Kerr, CEO of Internet Watch, announced proposals for a content rating and filtering system. Such systems are usually employed by individual users to prevent children using their computer from seeing pornographic images. Mr Kerr said "this system would not prevent adults from seeing legal material". However when Barbara Roche was invited to endorse such a requirement to allow adults unrestricted access to legal material she refused. "What is important is ensuring parents can control their childrens’ Internet use. That I am committed to." she replied. Ms Roche also refused to exempt any legal material from the review on the grounds of free speech. "I would not want to prejudge the review" she said. With such an open remit it is likely that civil servants will suggest sweeping restrictions. DTI sources said that content rating and filtering mechanisms would probably form a key part of any proposals to regulate "legal but harmful" material.

Campaign spokesman Malcolm Hutty commented: "This conference has three important parts:

Anyone interested in protecting freedom of speech on the Internet should write to the DTI and say that we don’t want IWF as a censor, we don’t want government-sponsored content rating schemes and we certainly don’t want any regulation of legal material."


Say NO to Censorship Web:

The following is from NTKnow's March 06, 1998 edition at

Just how tolerant are the INTERNET WATCH FOUNDATION?

That's the self-referential question that the IWF will be asking, after their announcement of a proposed rating system for UK Web sites on Wednesday. The new ratings include a special "tolerance" setting, which varies between 0 (neutral to other groups) to 4 ("Advocates action which would cause physical, psychological or economic harm or violence against the group"). Naturally, the IWF would hope that economic harm would occur to anyone who *didn't* stick their ratings tag on all their Web pages, so that gets them a four. Also intriguing is the "sex" rating, which estimates "periods, etc." as a "2", and masturbation as a "4". Startling to think that without the IWF, innocent teenagers might have stumbled across these issues. - Not to be confused with the Internet Wrestling Federation - Yaman gets a 4 in all our books. Baby.

IWF defends rating system for Internet - The Internet Watch Foundation has hit back at criticism from ISPs that its plans for a Net content rating system are impractical. (First appeared in Mag Net, 04-March -1998)

The report from the government backed IWF, published yesterday, proposes a rating system that would prevent children accessing 'unsuitable' sites, but critics claim it will actually encourage children to search for unsuitable material. One of the Internet service providers on the attack was David Clarke, managing director of Virgin Net,“The suggestions made are just not practical,” he said. “The only viable solution for shielding unsavoury information from children is for parents to educate their children and control their viewing.”

“I’m also afraid that a ratings system would attract children to search out sites that are unsuitable for them, rather than deter them from viewing,” he added.

David Kerr, chief executive of the IWF, defended the initiative, saying that the strongest way of convincing sceptics is by proving that it can work.

“There are some organisations around that have a fundamental objection to a ratings system,” he said. “It is true to say that we need the support of the majority of the ISPs to encourage users to rate sites, and the major ones are in fact on our board and funding us. This should not be a barrier.”

Much of the argument stems from the problems of establishing an international standard that could take account of cultural diversity. A Virgin Net spokesperson said: “There is no magical software that can decide what is or isn’t offensive and there never will be.”

Kerr admitted that any initiative based on content would need to distinguish between different countries, but was confident that this could be achieved with global feedback. One supporter of the IWF’s initiative is UK ISP Demon Internet. James Gardiner, head of corporate communications, explained that the company is very keen see a ratings system properly run by the IWF.

“We are not necessarily against all adult material, but we want to create safe areas for children and that means that adult material should be kept in adult areas,” he said.

Virgin Net is not the only ISP to criticise plans to clamp down on pornography, violence and bad language on the Internet. Net Names told the 'Daily Telegraph' recently that the IWF’s plans to delete child pornography from the Internet were “like bailing out the ocean with a spoon”.

The IWF’s plans to tame the Internet revolve around a model used in the US by the Recreational Software Advisory Council for the Internet (RSCAi), a voluntary regulation scheme that analyses site details to achieve a rating. Software sitting on the browser then filters sites and prevents access by those deemed unsuitable. Kerr said that the IWF would be pursuing a more proactive policy by the end of the month, and he hoped that an international standard would be established within 18 months. He said that he was looking to secure sponsorship for a nationwide consumer survey that would set the criteria for a rating system, and was approaching corporations and the EU as a way of funding this.

ISPs blast Net rating system
Copyright PC Week, 10 -March -1998

A government-backed proposal to rate Internet content has come under fire from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and civil liberties groups.

The proposal, put forward last week by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), and backed by the Department of Trade & Industry, sparked a heated debate about the validity of Internet content ratings systems.

The report outlines the IWF’s purpose to "establish content rating and filtering techniques for viewing legal content on the Internet" and stresses "the importance of providing Internet users with a means of protecting themselves, and their children, from material that they find offensive or harmful".

But David Clarke, managing director of ISP Virgin Net, blasted the report.

"The suggestions made are just not practical," he argued. "The only viable solution for shielding children from unsavoury information is for parents to educate their children and control their viewing, in the same way that parents oversee what their children watch on television and which books and magazines they read."

The IWF notes that any rating system must have a global approach and include an objective description of content. It should be user-friendly and allow subjective user parameters, while offering "off-the-shelf" profiles that would be the on-line equivalent of the certificates awarded to films.

The system should be easy for the content provider to implement.

The ratings system should have some form of quality control, to make sure that sites rate themselves correctly, and the IWF hotline (for reporting illegal content) could be extended to cope with this. However, the civil liberties group Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties pointed out that ratings systems are "defective", and can be used by repressive regimes to censor material on the Net.

It recommends that filtering software be improved and advocated as a way of letting users take responsibility for what they see on the Net.

Global Developments related to rating systems:

Subject: EFF Statement on Mc Cain and Coats passage by Senate Committee
For Immediate Release: March 12, 1998
Statement of Electronic Frontier Foundation President Barry Steinhardt on the Senate Commerce Committee's Approval of Coats and Mc Cain Internet Speech Bills

The Senate Commerce Committee made a grave mistake this morning by approving the Coats and Mc Cain bills, both of which will censor content on the Internet. It is particularly disheartening that the Committee took action on short notice and without allowing free speech advocates, educators and librarians any meaningful opportunity to be heard on these dangerous and censorious proposals.

The Coats bill, which in the name of protecting children, will effectively block adults from receiving a wide variety of legitimate material that falls under a vague category of "harmful to minors", has all of the same constitutional defects as the earlier Communications Decency Act (CDA). Like the CDA, it cannot withstand a review in the courts.

The Mc Cain bill would force libraries and schools, which receive Federal Universal Service monies for Internet connections, to use all too frequently crude and overbroad filters that also block out a wide array of non-"indecent" speech. Children and adults alike will be denied the full potential of the Internet as the true marketplace of diverse ideas.It will deprive library patrons, students and speakers of the their First Amendment rights.

EFF will vigorously oppose these bills as they move through the legislative process and we will work to rally the Net Community in opposition.

See also the ALA News Release February 13, 1998 McCain introduces Internet School Filtering Act; ALA registers concern

Read also the Statement of the American Library Association to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Indecency on the Internet, February 10, 1998

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Last updated 08 April, 1998.