As the Internet grows, the range of community standards that it must accommodate will likewise continue to widen. Issues of offensiveness, decency and palatable speech will pose an ever greater threat to the free movement of information through the network.
One promising alternative to Internet-wide censorship is to let users set their own standards. SurfWatch and several other companies have developed rating systems and software that can prevent Internet browsers from getting to objectionable materials. Scanning algorithms may also block innocent information, however; among those who have found themselves at least temporarily data non grata are a Nynex web site that used "XXX" in its file names, a breast-cancer support group on America Online, and the town of Scunthorpe, England.
A consortium of computer companies, publishers and other organizations has developed a new architecture for blocking software, called PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection). It would enable people to choose whatever rating system they want. (The ratings might be based on evaluations supplied by the authors of individual web pages, by independent evaluators, or even selectively by parents or teachers.) Users can develop their own versions of the "Index Expurgatorius": Web access could be limited to information suitable for children, for instance, to pages containing information about molecular biology, or to all sites suitable for those of a libertarian mindset.
The beauty of PICS, according to the consortium's statement of purpose, is that "the Internet can regulate itself through local choices about what to receive." Nevertheless, a question lingers: will we make those choices ourselves, or will someone else make them for us?