Content Advisor: the bit of Internet Explorer that refuses to die.

In late 2005, when I was CTO at ICRA, I went to Microsoft's Redmond offices. The visit was memorable for several reasons, one of which is that I was given an early preview of Microsoft's new parental controls in Windows. This was exciting. The online safety world had been calling for filters and other safety features to be included in the operating system for several years and with Windows Vista, they got it. Those parental controls have evolved a little to become part of Windows Live but they're essentially the same as were developed around that time. And they're good. I use the Family Safety feature of Windows 7 for my own children.

Having been told about the new parental controls in Vista that morning, I was expecting later that day, no, I was hoping later that day, to be told that Content Advisor would not be included in the forthcoming Internet Explorer 7. It had become something of a millstone around our necks, providing a degree of inertia against our efforts to modernise. To my astonishment, I was told that Content Advisor was being retained. Not only that, would I please supply a new data file to be shipped with IE7 that encoded the ICRA labelling system? Oh, and by the way, did I know how Content Advisor worked because the person that built it had left the company long ago (I'm not making this up, honestly).

Some background: Content Advisor was a filter built into IE3 that read labels produced by an organisation called RSACi which later, in 1999, became ICRA. It used a technology called PICS, one of the very first standards created by W3C. I've written about the ultimate failure of the ICRA model previously so I won't repeat that here but what I find astonishing is that, yes, Content Advisor has been retained in IE9.

Why is this so astonishing?

Content Advisor comes with a version of the ICRA vocabulary a colleague and I cooked up specifically to work with IE8. It was a compromise between the scalar rating system that the Content Advisor user interface was designed to handle and the binary descriptors that ICRA used. We had actually stopped producing PICS labels in July 2005, having switched to a system based loosely on RDF by then. I had to quickly add some new functionality to the ICRA label generator so that it would produce the new style labels that we were promoting and those cooked up PICS labels that worked with Content Advisor. Web masters were asked to add both to their Web sites. Horrendous.

ICRA stopped its technical work in autumn 2008 (getting rid of me at the same time), about a year before PICS was formerly superseded by POWDER as the relevant W3C Recommendation. The ICRA label generator remained online but without maintenance or promotion until September 2010 when the whole ICRA Web site was taken offline. Any icra.org URL now redirects you to a single page telling you a bit about ICRA's successor organisation.

To summarise, Internet Explorer 9, which is being promoted as being highly standards compliant, that Microsoft has good reason to hope will finally lay to rest the horrors of IE6, that embraces important technologies like SVG, HTML 5, CSS 3, XHTML and more… still includes Content Advisor. This filter was barely effective when it was built in 1996 and has declined in efficacy more or less continuously ever since. It is predicated on a technology that has been superseded at the W3C, it is designed to read labels that no one makes available and it includes a 'More Info' button that takes you to a metaphorical "closed for business" sign on the Web.

This does not sound rational to me.

All I can say is, please don't be fooled. There are effectively no PICS labels for Content Advisor to read so if you allow unlabelled content, you're allowing everything. If you don't allow unlabelled sites, you've effectively just switched off your Web access.

Windows Vista and Windows 7 come with effective, free, parental controls. If they suit your family, please do use those and don't try and use a feature that should have been retired years ago.

18 March 2011
Grateful thanks to Paul Walsh of MetaCert for alerting me to this
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