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October 23, 2001 01:37pm
Big Three Portals to Rate Porn
Source: AP
by: D. Ian Hopper

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Three of the biggest companies on the Net will start encouraging other firms on Tuesday to adopt a system that will allow parents to restrict access to websites they find objectionable.

The companies hope the system will ward off the threat of government regulation.

AOL Time Warner [http://AOLTimeWarner.com], Yahoo [http://corporate.Yahoo.com] and Microsoft Network [http://www.microsoft.com/msft] have thrown their support behind a filtering system developed by the Internet Content Rating Association [http://www.ICRA.org].

The ICRA's system is billed as a flexible scheme that allows website operators to flag potentially objectionable content such as female nudity or gambling on their websites.

Using a free filtering program, parents can approve or disapprove each category. Any sites containing content that parents find objectionable are automatically blocked. Parents can still block or allow specific sites as well.

Currently, a parent who wishes to block websites from a computer must use a filtering program with a preset list of blocked sites.

"The overwhelming response demonstrates the value of a voluntary self-labeling system that is about choice not censorship on the Internet," said ICRA North American director Mary Lou Kenny.

AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft represent the three most-visited Internet destinations and they host thousands of user-created Web pages through community sites such as GeoCities.

While the three big companies aren't known for producing controversial content, the widespread acceptance of a filtering system could force smaller sites to rate themselves. The filter, for example, could automatically deny access to any unrated sites.

The industry is getting some governmental support as well. Kenny said five lawmakers have told her they will introduce a bill encouraging legislators to rate their own websites.

Congress and Internet companies have had a rocky relationship over Internet pornography. There have been several laws to regulate explicit content on the Internet but they have been stalled or overturned in the courts.

Many other solutions have been offered, from making Internet providers liable for illegal pornography that travels through their networks to creating separate kids-only or porn-only areas of the Internet.

Internet companies maintain that technology can prevail and give choice back to parents.

"We believe that good corporate citizenship and tools that help parents make good decisions is a much better alternative than government regulation," Kenny said.

Kenny said about 200,000 websites are already labeled, including adult sites such as Playboy [http://Playboy.com]. The Interactive Gaming Council [http://igcouncil.org], which represents gambling sites, will encourage its members to get behind the plan as well.

Parents can also download blocked-site lists from groups they trust -- like a list of hate sites from the Anti-Defamation League [http://www.adl.org] -- and insert them into the program.

Internet filtering opponent Bennett Haselton, who runs Peacefire [http://Peacefire.org], said that since the filter is a stand-alone program that parents will have to download and install, he doubts many people will use it. A previous set of filtering standards was less specific but shipped with Internet browsers.

"It's a reincarnation of a system that has been around for years with enormous financial backing, and nobody uses it," Haselton said.

Porn opponent Bruce Taylor, a former Justice Department prosecutor, applauded the move but said the industry will have to tackle user-friendliness.

"We have to help parents, but parents do need to pay attention," said Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families [http://NationalLawCenter.org].

Taylor said the government will have to continue prosecuting obscenity and cracking down on the "mousetrapping" tools used by porn sites to keep Web surfers trapped on their sites. But he admitted that support from the tech sector is key.

"The industry can block a lot more out with their technology than the cops could ever catch afterwards," Taylor said.

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