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Hang Ups

If the Internet didn't exist, journalists would have to invent it. On those quiet days when the royals, the soap stars and even Jamie Blandford are behaving themselves, they can always report on the uncensored excesses of the World Wide Web. Cyberspace, if you believe the newspapers, makes Gomorrah look like the Vatican City.

The dirty mac brigade (or the dirty PC brigade, for that matter) probably finds all this publicity irresistible and is rushing out to buy modems. Unfortunately, it is also one of the main reasons why parents who are prepared to buy computers for their children reluctantly draw the line at going on-line. Some teachers, too, have serious reservations about giving pupils the freedom to surf the Net unsupervised.

It's true that RM's Internet for Learning and BT's CampusWorld both employ filter systems that can keep much of the unsavoury material out of the classroom. But they can't do anything, for instance, to stop children in a geography class who are supposed to be using the Internet for a project on meteorology from surreptitiously skipping to the X Files site.

Of course, the media studies teacher would be equally annoyed to find pupils wasting their time browsing through atmospheric circulation simulations when they should be giving their undivided attention to Mulder and Scully. It would all be so much easier if it were possible at the start of any session to instruct the browser (the software that searches the Web) to access only a predetermined range of topics.

The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) could be the answer, according to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - an association of some of the biggest names in the computer industry. They are painfully aware that if they don't get their own house in order, governments around the world will try to impose a blanket censorship on the content of the Internet. Such attempts would inevitably be bungled, ineffective, unfair and would undermine the marvellous sense of freedom that currently characterises the Internet.

Rather than let this happen, W3C wants publishers on the Internet to "label" the material on their sites. They can continue to publish what they like as long as they give a general indication of the subject matter. The labels might say "Political" or "Religious" or "Porn" or "Adult Language" - the term generally used to describe vocabulary most often heard in the playground.

Other labels could offer a guide to the potential audience: "Kindergarten", "High School", "University" or "Adult" - the term generally used to describe sad men in dirty macs. According to W3C, 80 per cent of the data on the Internet could be labelled by the end of next year.

Written labels would simply encourage children to make a beeline for the naughty bits. But those used in PICS will be an integral part of the programming code, embedded in every page published on the Web. Netscape, Microsoft, CompuServe, America Online and the other providers have agreed to build a utility into their software which will enable it to read a PICS label before the child ever gets to see the page. So adults can decide what categories of material are out of bounds, and then, with a few clicks of the mouse, program the software to thwart any attempts to access it. Because it doesn't attempt to censor what is being broadcast, PICS could go a long way to ensuring that one person's freedom of speech needn't be at the expense of someone else's embarrassment or distress.

Teachers and parents should be delighted; so, too, should the dirty mac brigade who can program their browsers to accept only cheap thrills. The only group likely to suffer will be the journalists who will no longer be able to rely on the Internet to provide them with easy copy on quiet days.

Information on PICS: http:www.w3.orgpubWWWPICS Arnold Evans is at:

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