Legislation Update

In Blazon 6, at the beginning of the year, we told you about proposed legislation to restrict Net content in the US, and promised to keep you up to date with any similar moves in the UK.

Although not strictly new legislation, there have been two attempts recently to clamp down on certain aspects of the Internet in the UK.

The first of these was a letter from Chief Inspector Stephen French, of the Clubs and Vice Squad of the Metropolitan Police, sent to most providers of an Internet dial-up service in the UK; the letter gave a list of 152 Usenet groups (although some group names were repeated) which were alleged to contain pornographic material, and requested that the service providers remove access to them.

Unfortunately, while some of the groups listed doubtless did contain illegal material, most of them were discussion groups, or contained other harmless items; it seemed to most providers that the list had been hastily assembled and not properly checked. Some providers agreed to remove access to the groups rather than face possible prosecution and the impounding of their equipment; some of the larger providers demanded that a proper nationwide policy be set.

The result of this is the second attempt to regulate the Net in the UK, a DTI proposal called "Safety-Net".

Safety-Net is based on a number of reasonable principles, for instance that the Internet is not a legal vacuum and that laws apply to activities on the Internet. Their approach contains three elements; rating, reporting and responsibility.

The intention is that eventually each item on the Net will carry some form of rating, which will then allow those using appropriate software to access only items carrying ratings that they deem suitable. The Safety-Net proposals also suggest a hot-line where 'Net users can complain about material which appears to be illegal, for investigation and reporting to the service provider if needed.

The proposals provide for ratings for the "usual content" in Usenet groups, again so that parents and other concerned parties can block access to those groups they deem undesirable.

The main problems with the Safety-Net policies as they relate to the World Wide Web are that rating of all pages will be required, and that a particular ratings service, RSACi, is endorsed.

There is no need, in practice, for all Web pages to be rated. Software that uses the ratings will generally block access to unrated pages, seeing them as "infinitely bad". Thus it will be sensible for commercial sites to rate their pages (and Herald will be doing this for their commercial customers shortly), so that they can be seen by the maximum number of people, but private individuals putting sites online may not care that children or others using rating-enabled software cannot access their site.

The ratings system, RSACi, was originally developed in the US for rating computer games. its drawbacks are that it is still havily rooted in the game genre -- that is, it speaks mainly about the depiction of events -- and that it is also firmly rooted in American cultire; the listing of offensive and inoffensive slang, and the definition of "profanity" solely as blasphemy are not usefully applicable to the UK.

Overall, the Safety-Net proposals have some useful points, but are in need of some fine-tuning if they are to have binding powers over the UK's Internet users and providers.