But we aren't out of the woods yet, and we probably never will be as long as there are people around who are concerned to control what other people are allowed to think. The next ploy will be "content rating systems". These have been around about 30 years for movies, and much more recently for music (!) and computer games. Just this year they have been introduced for TV shows, partly as a result of another "feature" of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which also included the CDA) - the so-called "V-chip".
There are pros and cons to these rating systems. It is good, for example, that they allow parents to know in a general way what kind of "entertainment" their children have access to. But the downside, and it is very real, is that rating systems inevitably restrict the availability of some fully legal information even to adults. In particular, this could very well happen to information on the Internet concerning nudism, naturism, and non-sexual nudity in general. And what will happen if people of a mind to censor are successful in applying mandatory ratings to Internet content? Books will be next.
These fears aren't just speculation and groundless hypothesizing. Restrictions on circulation of movies with R (and the more recent NC-17) ratings definitely occur, since many theaters won't show them - regardless of the reason for the rating. Theaters don't want to forego the revenue that would be lost from turning teenagers (their biggest market) away or the hassles from local moralists who would stage vocal protests. Note that R and NC-17 movies aren't necessarily "bad" or "immoral". Would anyone care to guess what sort of a rating any movie would receive if it realistically portrayed nudism/naturism? It would be at least an R just because of the simple nudity, not because of actual sexual content (which would be missing from "genuine" nudist/naturist films).
As far as music ratings are concerned, Walmart amd other retailers already refuse to carry CDs that have "bad" ratings. This is censorship, pure and simple, of material that is fully legal. Here, the ratings do not merely serve to warn parents - they meaningfully restrict availabiity, which is the true purpose of censorship.
And what of TV? There is current debate about whether TV ratings should be simple age-level classifications as with movies, or fully "content-based". While the latter sort of rating seemingly gives parents more information to work with, it is still a crude, blunt instrument. There are only three basic categories: violence, (bad) language, and sex. No separate rating for nudity. So, guess what. Any nudity, even non-sexual nudism/naturism, even something as helpful as material on breast cancer, would raise the "sex" rating. And you can safely bet that a high "sex" rating will tend to drive content off the air in many markets, not merely allow parents to control it. Further, the content-type ratings were supposed to be voluntary. But already we have grandstanding politicians in Congress threatening a whole network (NBC) with new legislation or FCC retaliation if they don't fall in line.
So, what is in store for the Internet? Three guesses, and the first two don't count. The ACLU has put out a white paper on how they see things, and it isn't comforting. It's titled Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?. If you'd prefer a summary, try the press release.
In a nutshell, what is likely to happen if ratings are required on the Web is this: many search engines will simply not list anything that is "bad", such as violence, sex, or - nudity. Or, at best, sites dealing with non-sexual nudity will be lumped in with all the X-rated stuff, as Excite! already does. The rating system makes it possible for this process to be fully automatic, with no human judgment of any mitigating circumstances involved. Search engines are now by far the main route through which people find what they're looking for on the Web. No listing = no visitors (almost). Especially if people can't even find a place to get started.
Worse yet, the way ratings are implemented will make it possible for almost any stage of the pipeline to automatically block a page or a whole site. ISPs especially big ones like AOL, Geocities, etc. can refuse to host the pages. Access providers can refuse to serve up the pages. (Islamic countries and other very authoritation societies like Singapore will love this, but it can happen anywhere.) Blocking sofware on a user's PC can black out the page (and the people who sell software like this seldom disclose the criteria they use). Advertising services such as banner exchanges may refuse to handle pages/sites with certain ratings.
Ratings will not be voluntary, either, if the censors have their way. Already the same grandstanding politicians in Congress are talking about legislation to make ratings on Web pages mandatory, and to impose draconian penalties for any perceived inaccuracies. Now, such controls are one thing when they are required of large, corporate mass media like movies studios and TV. But as bad as that is, it's far worse when every single individual who wants to speak up in cyberspace by posting Web pages is forced to submit to the same constraints. It is a prior restraint on legitimate free speech by individuals, pure and simple.
Is it any more likely, furthermore, that the dominant - or required - rating system will make any better distinction in cyberspace between sex and simple nudity than occurs in other media? Hardly. One of the problems is that the terms "nudism" and "nudist" have already been largely taken over by sleazy XXX sex merchants for their own wares. Just look at almost any Web search engine. Do a search on "nudist" or "nudism". Anywhere from about half to well over half of the results will be hard-core porn sites (with no real nudist material at all, not even arty nudes). The people who run such sites for profit use "nudist" and "nudism" as key words, since they expect people to use these terms in searches. (For contrast, search for "naturist" or "naturism". Almost all the results will be relevant, with very little porn.)
Is it then any wonder that the Excite! engine already places real nudist sites in an "X- and R-rated area"? More of the same is inevitable if such failure to make proper distinctions is embedded in the rating systems themselves. Nudists, naturists, and other people who just like to be naked for non-sexual purposes should be very concerned about how ratings are implemented. If they can't be entirely avoided, then we should work to ensure that proper distinctions are made.
The Cyber Patrol rating system that CompuServe uses is a step in the right direction. Nudity is clearly distinguished from sex. There is even a distinction between full and partial nudity. Text-only discussions of nudity are not controlled at all, so access to nudist/naturist forums isn't restricted. Another exception is made for nudity in pictures "of a wholesome nature". This specifically refers to depictions such as are found in National Geographic. Apparently pictures of traditional nudism/naturism do not qualify here, though they clearly should. It's very hard to understand what is different about pictures of native people in Africa and South America who wear little or no clothing and nudists/naturists in Europe and North America who customarily do likewise.
But even special exceptions like this aren't fully satisfactory. The mere fact that a page or a site is rated as containing pictures or discussions of nudity is a still a large cause for concern. One thing we can be sure of is that the Web in two years will be as different from the way it is now as it was two years ago. It is probable that the Web will become more dominated by large media companies such as control TV and the print media today. Many of these, having the Walmart mentality, may forbid links, even indirect ones, to sites that have pages rated as containing nudity.
What are the consequences if we fail to take action against the potential problems with all rating systems? Quite simply, it is that people who like non-sexual nudity will once again be ghettoized. Their very existence will be almost invisible to the mainstream world. Only people knowing exactly where to look will be able to find pages or sites like this one. This means, in practice, only people who already share this interest, or else people whose only concept of nudity does not differentiate it from sexuality, which is what they really care about.
We will lose the ability to put our case before the public at large. To show people who secretly sympathize with this way of being that they don't have to hide and keep their interest concealed from everyone else. To change minds and present non-sexual nudity as the pleasant, life-enhancing, and wholesome thing which it really is.
What we will lose is precisely that which censorship always threatens: the very opportunity for people holding unconventional opinions to present their case in the best way they can in an attempt to persuade the mainstream that new and unusual ideas can also be good ideas.
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