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Internet industry backs filtering system for controversial Web sites
By D. Ian Hopper, Associated Press, 10/23/2001
WASHINGTON -- The top three Internet companies will start encouraging other firms today to adopt a system that will allow parents to restrict access to Web sites they find objectionable. The companies hope the system will ward off the threat of government regulation. Currently, a parent who wishes to block Web sites from a computer must use a filtering program with a preset list of blocked sites.
The Internet Content Rating Association's model is more flexible. Operators flag potentially objectionable content like female nudity or gambling on their Web sites. 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.
"The overwhelming response demonstrates the value of a voluntary self-labeling system that is about choice not censorship on the Internet," ICRA North American director Mary Lou Kenny said.
AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft Network have thrown their support behind the labeling system. The companies represent the three most-visited Internet destinations, and they host thousands of user-created Web pages through community sites like 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 Web sites.
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 Web sites are already labeled, including adult sites like Playboy.com. The Interactive Gaming Council, 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 and insert them into the program.
Internet filtering opponent Bennett Haselton said that since the filter is a stand-alone program 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 next as long as parents participate.
"We have to help parents, but parents do need to pay attention," said Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families.
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 tech sector support is key.
"The industry can block a lot more out with their technology than the cops could ever catch afterwards," Taylor said.
-- Anonymous, October 23, 2001