In a private vote by e-mail a few days before Christmas, a group of about 200 computer scientists and engineers endorsed a set of rules that could govern some of the most fundamental ways people around the globe will get electronic information -- and will be prevented from getting it -- in years to come.
Members of the group, the World Wide Web Consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say they were simply agreeing on a technical standard to allow much-needed filtering of the Web's vast store of information.
They were building a tool, they say, not passing a law. And in that spirit, little notice was taken of their action, which revolved around the arcane technical specifications and lines of computer code that define the Platform for Internet Content Selection or, in the trade, PICS.
But a growing number of civil libertarians argue that these technologists are in some ways acting as an unelected world government, wielding power that will shape social relations and political rights for years to come. In cyberspace, these critics assert, computer code has the force of law.
The filtering system, a technology for defining what parts of the Web will be accessible from a particular computer or group of computers, was originally conceived as a way to head off government regulation of speech in cyberspace.
But in an increasingly vigorous debate, civil-liberties groups are condemning the PICS technology as a mechanism for censorship, while Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the consortium that approved the standard, is defending it as a force for social good.
Critics argue that repressive governments can use the filtering technology as a tool to screen political speech and that in the United States the most likely application will effectively block much of the constitutionally protected expression that has made the Web a particularly democratic communications medium.
"This is a technique that is designed to enable one party to control what another can access", said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The most palatable formulation of that is parent-child, but the fact is it also allows a government or an Internet service provider to take on that parental role and decide what anyone downstream is going to be able to see -- and no steps have been taken to prevent that."
Microsoft Corp. has already incorporated an early version of the content-selection technology into its Internet Explorer Web browser. But free-speech advocates fear that the rules endorsed last month will speed up the technology's adoption by making it far easier to use.
Which is exactly the point, the defenders of the filter standard say. At a recent meeting of Clinton administration officials and Internet industry representatives in Washington, Vice President Al Gore stressed a need for the information industry to provide parents with easy technological fixes.
Berners-Lee, who invented the Web at the CERN laboratory in Geneva as a seamless world of information accessible from any kind of computer, insists that the benefits of the "PICSRules", as the recent addition to the standard is known, outweigh its drawbacks.
"I appreciate your concerns", he wrote in response to a statement from a civil-liberties coalition, the Global Internet Liberty Campaign. "Whilst I tend personally to share them at the level of principle, I do not believe that the PICSRules technology presents, on balance, a danger rather than a boon to society. I can also affirm that the intent of the initiative is certainly not as a tool for government control, but as a tool for user control, which will indeed reduce the pressure for government action."
Whatever the merits of the opposing claims, the controversy underscores the exceptional influence that technologists wield in formulating the rules that govern cyberspace. It also presages increasing tension between the architects of the Internet and the people who use it, as profound policy implications of technical decisions also loom for privacy and intellectual property.
Traditionally, the technical rules that allow computers to perform tasks like sending and receiving electronic mail or documents were developed by organizations that represented the institutions, companies, and individuals that most used the medium.
But at a time when the global computer network is no longer the private preserve of scientists and academics, the procedures of groups like the one headed by Berners-Lee -- the World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C -- are being called into question.
Indeed, many of the civil libertarians who oppose the filter technology initially touted it as an alternative to government interference. More recently, they have concluded that speech-regulation features woven into the Internet may be as threatening to free expression as legislation.
Tim Berners-Lee is seen with computers at the international WWW conference in Boston.
In a recent interview, Berners-Lee portrayed members of the group as social activists conscious of their legislation like power and struggling to exercise it responsibly.
"Most of the people who are working on the Web are not doing it because they have a frantic urge to program", Berners-Lee said. "They're doing it because they have a vision of how society should be improved. The difference is, now people can make social things possible by creating technology, whereas before, to make social things possible, really all you could do was make laws."
Ultimately, how effective such standards are will depend on whether the major Internet browser companies apply them. Thomas Reardon, Microsoft's program manager for Internet architecture, and a member of the World Wide Web Consortium's advisory council, said the company was continuing to evaluate whether to include the technology in future versions of its browser.
"We're certainly looking at which users get the most from it, and we're also aware of the downsides of government abuse, especially in foreign situations", Reardon said. "The company is going through a process of trying to look at it more formally."
The World Wide Web Consortium's 231 members include most computing and telecommunications companies that have significant stakes in the Internet, some government agencies and several nonprofit groups. Membership fees are on a sliding scale, from $5,000 to $50,000. The group's stated goal is "to realize the full potential of the Web".
The challenge in keeping the group apolitical, Berners-Lee said, is to create ways of achieving social goals that are "policy independent".
The platform selection technology, for example, is not itself a rating system but a labeling system that enables Web publishers to rate themselves or to be rated by third parties.
Labels are essential to the growth of the Web, proponents of the filter standard argue, because while browser software cannot now look at the millions of sites on the Web and determine which contain violence or nudity, it can sort by looking at labels that describe the site's content.
Under the model endorsed last month, anyone or any group -- from Good Housekeeping magazine to the government of Singapore to the Christian Coalition -- could create a ratings system, and parents could select the one that best represented their values. Aside from any benefits to children, widespread adoption of labeling would allow sorting by quality of information according to particular sources or other criteria.
A problem is that the Web is vast and rating is labor-intensive. Civil libertarians say that the most likely outcome in the United States will be dominance by a few ratings systems that will probably exclude much of the material on the Web. Nor, they point out, would there be anything to prevent Congress from passing a law requiring the use of such systems.
More frightening, the critics say, the new version of the filter specifications allows third parties to block all material originating from a particular Internet address like a political organization, a country or a group of nations.
The European Commission has expressed interest in using the filters to enforce a policy to block illegal content. China, which recently announced new Internet censorship rules, and Singapore are widely cited as likely to use the filtering technology to impose censorship.
Paul Resnick, one of the inventors of the content selection system, has created a sort of incubator at the University of Michigan, where he is an associate professor in the School of Information, to encourage the development of multiple ratings systems.
"In the information age, issues of how information flows are going to have a huge impact on commerce, society and politics", Resnick said. "That's why this debate is happening. I think we as technologists have a special responsibility to educate policy-makers, to educate the public about what's possible. I think we also have a responsibility to invent new technologies that meet public goals with the fewest negative side effects."
"But", he added, "if I go over a certain boundary and say what the public's goal ought to be, then I think I'm overstepping my bounds and abusing my power."