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August 4, 2006

Watch those meta-tags!

Stephen Hearn pointed me to an article in the Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/07/28/us_meta_tag_law/) that outlines the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a recently passed piece of US legislation that, among many other measures, bans the willful use of meta-tags on web pages "with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity." More thoughts...

The law appears to apply to both meta description tags, which are often indexed by crawlers, and meta keyword tags, which are sometimes indexed by crawlers.

Some observations:


  • The bulk of the bill strengthens sentencing for and protections against all sorts of disturbing predatory behavior. The benefits of doing so should not be overlooked or belittled.
  • The "deception" described above can land you in prison for 20 years, if a minor is found to have mistakenly navigated to your site.
  • Defining what might be considered obscene is a difficult task, depending as it does upon "community standards." Defending yourself against such charges is fraught with difficulty and risk.

  • Passage of the bill was helped by the work of a study done by a company called Envisional in 2000. The company
    ... searched against the names of that year's 26 most popular children's characters, including Pokémon, My Little Pony, Toy Story and Furby. Its study found several thousand links to pornographic sites.

  • The above list of characters contains some double entendres; the number of links found may have been inflated by these multiple meanings.

  • The law applies to all "source code" on a website; if one embeds scripts or other functional programming jargon, one must also beware of future development practice for those vocabularies. Quoting from the law:
    The term `source code' means the combination of text and other characters comprising the content, both viewable and nonviewable, of a web page, including any website publishing language, programming language, protocol or functional content, as well as any successor languages or protocols. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps worrying about this is making a mountain out of a molehill. Meta tags as a class have been less and less popular as their utility was abused by search engine rank ploys and advertising parasites. However, it seems to have special dangers for organizations that have wide appeal to all ages, and have large collections of pages (many of which may be automatically populated with meta tags) that contain some material that might be considered objectionable by the stodgiest amongst our populace. Hmmm, sound like anybody you know?