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Naughty Bits

By: Scott Bradner

There is now an attempt among a wide group of people to try and come up with a technical solution to one of the most vexing of the byproducts of this technical revolution that is the Internet. The problem of giving the users of the Internet some level of control over the type of material they or their children are exposed to.

The World Wide Web (WWW) has developed into the major way of accessing information over the Internet despite the fact that the web is not a specific thing. It is basically a way of providing pointers to information accessible over the Internet, sort of like a distributed TV Guide with no single publisher. The pointers are known as Universal Resource Locators (URLs) An example URL is one that this newspaper used to point to the text of a recent interview. (

URLs currently include three types of information. The first part (http:) indicates the type of process or program that must be used to retrieve the data. The second part ( is the name of the computer on the Internet where the information is stored. The final part (ibmqa.hhtp) is the name of the file containing the information.

The web, as the WWW is referred to, is not the only way that information is retrieved over the Internet but it is the fastest growing method. Web traffic now makes up the largest single type of traffic on the Internet comprising about a fifth of all traffic, up from a few percent two years ago.

A number of people now think that one could add additional information to the URLs, in particular, one could add a new field that could be used to indicate something about the content of the referenced file. Something along the lines of movie ratings one sees in TV Guide. To be sure that someone does not setup a misleading URL the same information would have to be added to the data files themselves . The Monty Pithon term "naughty bits" does spring to mind when reading about the idea.

Software that is used to access the web could be configured to only retrieve information when the URL included a naughty bits field and then only if the information indicated that the information was suitable for the particular user. Parents could purchase for their kids web brousers specifically programmed to only allow access to specific types of information. Public libraries or schools where Internet access is provided to the public could provide browsers with permissions based on the age or preferences of the user.

Take a look at draft-borenstein-kidcode-00.txt/ for one example of what sort of thinking is going on. This proposal uses a tag that include the age at which someone would be assumed to be able to deal with the contents and a tag word or two listing the types of potentially objectionable contents. (profanity, violence etc.)

There are a few implementation details yet to be figured out. Creating software that pays attention to such an information field s quite easy. It may not even be all that hard to get service providers to add the information to the URLs. It is rather more difficult to get some consistent understanding of what to put in the field.

Evaluation of information in this area is highly subjective. Something that I would find in normal discourse in the (allegedly hallowed) halls of Harvard would be dull to the extreme in many places and salacious in even more. Coming up with a set of standard ways to evaluate material will not be easy. (Hopefully one can be developed that can be distributed, unlike some of the congressional attempts at defining pornography.)

Even with the problems of subjectiveness and a potential for providers to purposely misrepresent the contents of their materiel, approaches of this sort would seem to me to be far preferable to the approaches which would result in making material unsuitable for a 6 year old unavailable to all.

disclaimer: Although everyone attending Harvard is above the age of 6 (at least physically) and thus controlling access is less of an issue, Harvard has not addressed the issue and the above reflect only my views.