PICS - The W3 Platform for Internet Content Selection

Presentation by Jim Miller in Canberra on 16 July 1996

Notes by Roger Clarke


I had the opportunity to attend a presentation in Canberra on 16 July by Prof. Jim Miller of the W3 Consortium, who is responsible for the PICS initiative. My thanks to Phil Singleton and to Microsoft for the invitation. These are my notes on the event.

The W3 Consortium

The W3 Consortium comprises a small number of research laboratories financially supported by a large number of companies. MIT is the heart of the exercise, with work also being undertaken at three sites in France. Two sites on the Pacific Rim may be added in the near future.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the originators of the web, transferred to the Consortium from CERN when CERN wound down its commitment a couple of years ago, and Tim is the Consortium Director. The three main areas of work are in user interface, architecture (headed by David Connolly at MIT), and technology and society (headed by Jim Miller). In addition to PICS, T&S concerns itself with such matters as electronic commerce (current work focuses on a means for the consumer and merchant to negotiate on how to pay; and later work will is intended to be in the area of micro-payments), security, privacy and intellectual property.


PICS is an infrastructure which extends the web to support rating schemes for individual web-pages. It supports:

Label-creation may be performed by:

Label-distribution may be performed in several ways. It may be:

Page-blocking may be performed at any of several points:

The PICS infrastructure is independent of the rating schemes employed. Examples of schemes that may be used within the PICS context are:

The PICS infrastructure is also independent of the user interface employed. The standard is published, to facilitate software producers incorporating the capability into their web-browsers, and enhancing them to support the setting and maintenance of profiles.

Brief History of the PICS Project

The PICS project was stimulated by the Exon/CDA Bill, and the recognition that, in addition to negative lobbying against the measures, some positive steps were required. It was conceived in May 1995, announced in September 1995, draft specifications were published in November 1995, and the substantive version of the specifications (version 1.1) was released in April 1996.

Reference code is available to software developers; software for content providers exists; and software for parents was released in beta in June. (Sorry, but I'm not aware of who has released what, nor of how to get any of the above. You'll have to ask Jim!).


I expressed concern about the practicability of the scheme for page-authors. I provide over 200 documents, and significant companies have thousands and tens of thousands of them. Authors need to be able to nominate a minimal level of rating, on all rating scales, for all documents; and then to over-ride the default in those few cases where some other rating is appropriate (e.g. Waltzing Matilda includes verbal images of animal cruelty and suicide ...).

Unfortunately, PICS provides only qualified support to this approach. Jim suggested that as and when a web-server provides a service to publishers, such a service should be readily offered within that environment. In the absence of some convenient mechanism of this kind, I fear that both corporations and individuals will find self-rating just too much like hard work.

I'm concerned about the extent to which the OFLC classifications used in Australia will map onto the classification schemes being developed by the (exclusively?) American ratings agencies. The ABA Report has explicitly recommended the creation of a Task Force to investigate this challenge.

Liddy Neville of RMIT was concerned about the extent to which cultural differences could be accommodated by the scheme, e.g. Muslim attitudes to women's dress, and to blasphemy. Jim suggested that there is nothing in the PICS infrastructure that creates difficulties in this regard (although it would seem advisable for conservative communities such as Muslims, Orthodox Jews and Southern Baptists to establish and maintain their own classification schemes); and that (at least some?) ratings schemes included scope within, for example, the nudity scale to reflect the more fine-grained discrimination used by some communities.

Both an attendee from DEET and myself I enquired whether the PICS infrastructure was capable of being applied to standards additional to kiddie-friendliness. One possible area is educational value (by age, grade and subject), and another is quality (e.g. content, presentation, frequency of update, accreditation of author / publisher). That appears to be feasible and likely, but not planned.


The W3 Consortium's stance is that governments should rely on labels not censorship, that industry should develop and deploy content selection software, and that all participants should start rating content.

Jim was very enthusiastic about The ABA Report, and not only because of its endorsement of PICS.

Further Reading

For information on regulation generally, see

For the main pages on PICS, see

For Robin Whittle's material on PICS, see


Go to Roger's Home Page.

Go to the contents-page for this segment.

Send an email to Roger

Created: 17 July 1996

Last Amended: 28 July 1996

These community service pages are a joint offering of the Australian National University (which provides the infrastructure), and Roger Clarke (who provides the content).
The Australian National University
Visiting Fellow, Faculty of
Engineering and Information Technology,
Information Sciences Building Room 211
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, ACN: 002 360 456
78 Sidaway St
Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 6 288 6916 Fax: +61 6 288 1472