American Mensa PICS Controversy

and some thoughts on software design...
Historical revisionism. In a Letter to the Editor published in the Mensa Bulletin of January 2005, John Keker wondered why members' websites are no longer available to the public... "Is this because we are protecting our members' privacy from the general public, or are we protecting the general public from our member's Web sites?" The Editor replied: "The links are a service to our members. By restricting access to them to other Mensans, we are trying to protect our members' privacy." Is the Editor ignorant, forgetful, or a liar?
It's over! In April 2001, after two years of deliberation, the AMC and its lawcritters finally reached my conclusions. I love to say I told them so! I guess the battle ends now, but I'll keep this material online. For historical reasons, and because I'm sure they'll come up with something equally stupid and controversial soon, and these pages may be a useful reference. And because I'm still angered that they wasted so much of my time. The situation now is precisely what it was pre-PICS, except that legal threats are of less concern because Mensa finally got around to limiting access to members only. If they'd done that two years ago, this mess could have been avoided. (Of course, a related issue was that some people wanted the links accessible to everyone, as a showcase for Mensa and Mensans. But once password protection was added, that was no longer an option.) The two primary choices back then were password protection or picsware. (Well, there was a third... the webmistress wanted to eliminate member links; an odd position for a webmistress, but... well, 'nuff said.) The AMC solution was to take the most illogical and difficult route for all concerned: require PICS ratings on member pages, make us all change our pages, check all linked pages (and re-check periodically) to make sure they comply, argue for two years, lose most of the links, finally get around to adding password protection, and then realize that PICS was both unnecessary and ineffective. One would expect better from Mensans, but egos get in the way.
Many people have misunderstood my position. I have nothing against censorware as such, I have nothing against parental censorship used to protect children from inappropriate material, and I even have nothing against imposed censorship in cases where it's needed (though determination of where it's needed is a big question in itself, highly subjective, and probably the greatest argument against imposed censorship). My objection is that the AML PICS requirement forces all member sites, even the innocent, to add value to flawed software, most of which is offered by commercial software vendors; and that the AML was providing free advertisement and recommendation for some of those commercial products. And, of course, the AML didn't bother to ask for input from those who would suffer the requirement.

On 8 August 1997, the Mensa link to my homepage was established. On 28 December 1998, I received my PICS Letter, in which the Webmaster demanded that I add a PICS rating to my homepage within thirty days, or be delinked upon failure to comply. If not for my subscription to the Webheads list, I would have known nothing of this decision until receipt of the letter.

I objected to the PICS requirement on the following grounds...

My suggested solution for this problem was to use an alternate entrance to my site for the link from Mensa. After all, a website can be entered from any page on the site, no? And the PICS information was only required to be on the entrance page. So, by using an alternate entrance for the link from Mensa, I could satisfy the PICS requirement while minimizing my involuntary and unrewarded contribution to the success of those commercial censorware vendors. I sent a message describing this plan to the CyberSpace Committee on 31 December 1998 and received a reply from the chairman a few days later, but I don't think he really understood my proposal. And he apparently didn't know that by this time I had already submitted my Mensa entrance page and had been told that it would be linked, and that another member of the Cyberspace Committee had stated on m-pics his guarantee that another member's page, a special page for AML linking, outlining that member's opinion of PICS and containing the required tag, would be linked. (And eventually it was all sorted out and acknowledged that my course of action was acceptable. The American Mensa Website would link to a member's page, any page, as long as it contains a valid PICS rating tag for the directory.)

Fastforward to April 2001. By this time American Mensa had its own server and a password-protected member resource area. After some prodding and delay they agreed to lift the PICS requirement. I think there still may be a problem, though. Some Mensans are young, and material which isn't appropriate for non-Mensan youngsters probably isn't appropriate for Mensan youngsters either, or, at least, that's what their parents will think. Does password protection really solve this problem completely? I wouldn't think so. My feeling is that the folks who stated that the PICS requirement would be lifted after password protection was implemented hadn't really thought the matter through.

And in truth, I'm not certain that the PICS ratings are a bad thing. I was never opposed to the idea itself; I understand the desire of parents to protect their children. I am a parent. I was opposed to the poor methodology of PICS, a decision made essentially in private without input from the membership and announced as fait accompli, and Mensa's endorsement and advertising of commercial products (the one battle that I did win: they removed the links to commercial picsware vendors.).

Oh, well, enough is enough.

Related links...

8 Januaro 2005 modifita, de Ailanto verkita.