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Based on over 15 months of work in both design and implementation, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recently issued the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) specifications as a W3C Recommendation.
PICS is an infrastructure for associating labels with Internet content. It was originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet, but it also facilitates other uses for labels, including code signing, privacy, and intellectual property rights management.
Work began on PICS in May 1995 with the original charter, statement of principles, and scenarios. The first version of the specifications was released in November 1995, and the current versions have been stable since March 1996. Since then, the specifications have become more readable and have gained from developer experiences. Simultaneously, acceptance of PICS has grown, and a wide variety of browsers, filtering software, and proxies have appeared or are about to be released to the market. In addition, PICS has been a key component in the industry's efforts to work with governments around the world to make the Internet safe for children. The paper PICS: Internet Access Controls Without Censorship which appeared in the October, 1996, issue of the Communications of the ACM provides additional background, history, and suggestions for future directions.
While the original goal of the PICS work was to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet, it also facilitates other uses for labels, including code signing, privacy, and intellectual property rights management. PICS is a general purpose system for creating, attaching, and transmitting labels to information on the Internet. PICS, unlike more familiar rating systems such as the different movie rating systems used world-wide, is completely values-neutral: it does not say anything about suitability for certain ages or particular purposes. PICS dictates neither a labeling vocabulary nor who should pay attention to which labels. It is analogous to specifying where on a package a label should appear, and in what font it should be printed, without specifying what it should say.
PICS consists of two independent but related specifications. The first, Rating Services and Rating Systems (and Their Machine Readable Descriptions), allows anyone who wishes to label content on the Internet to describe their labels. The description, which can be created using a simple text editor, allows end-user software to build an easy-to-use interface for manipulating the labels. For example, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (version 3.0 and higher) includes an interface that allows parents to configure the browser to block information based on the PICS labels it receives.
The second specification, PICS Label Distribution, Label Syntax, and Communication Protocols, describes how the actual labels are formatted and how they are transmitted. By specifying the format, PICS ensures that labels can be created by software written independently of the software designed to read the labels. For example, both RSAC (the Recreational Software Advisory Council) and SafeSurf have Web sites that allow an author to rate their own web page by filling out a form and receiving a label formatted according to the PICS specification. The PICS specification also defines the three ways in which PICS labels can be transmitted:
New infrastructures are often used in unplanned ways, to meet latent needs. There will be many labeling vocabularies that are unrelated to access controls. The PICS specifications also plan for unplanned uses, by including extension mechanisms for adding new functionality. PICS is a new resource available to anyone who wishes to associate data with documents on the Internet, even documents that others control. Work both at W3C and elsewhere is exploring the use of PICS labels for protection of data and personal privacy, intellectual property protection, collaborative filtering, distributed indexing, and use in digital libraries.