W3C updates parent Net control

The consortium releases two technical enhancements of its protocol designed to help parents and teachers control what children see on the Net.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) today released two technical enhancements of its Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), a protocol designed to help parents and teachers control what children see on the Net.

The release comes one week before a Washington, D.C., conference called Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children, which grew out of a July 16 White House conference on children on the Internet.

"The focus of this first summit is on safety," said Sydney Rubin, spokeswoman for the event. "It means protecting children from inappropriate content, from predators in chat rooms, from being the subject of child pornography on the Internet. It means protecting them from things that we don't want children exposed to on the street or on the cybercorner."

The summit on children--underwritten by firms including AT&T, America Online, Time Warner, Microsoft, and Disney Online--will include announcements of private-sector initiatives to protect children online. Vice President Al Gore has been invited to address the event.

Since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act this June, the White House and lawmakers have been trying to persuade parents to use technology to curb children's access to adult material on the Net.

PICS, an effort started in July 1995, just after the CDA was passed, is one of those private initiatives. Initial elements of the protocol, which also is used for privacy labels and software code safety, were outlined July 16 at a White House meeting that focused on children's issues on the Internet.

"The only question that President Clinton asked was, 'How do you make it easy for parents to use?'" said James Miller of W3C. "We wanted to make it clear that the technology is stable and very much a complete system now."

The first enhancement, the PICSRules recommendation, lets users click once to configure PICS settings. Preferences can be exchanged easily so that users can go to the Web site of an organization they trust and copy its PICS rules for content, security, and privacy.

The second, DSig, uses digital signatures to verify the authenticity of PICS labels and to attest that the labels haven't been altered.

"We think both are extremely important," Miller said. "They address any weakness that anyone has brought up in the child content domain." Previous elements of the PICS had addressed how to format and transmit labels.

Future enhancements of the PICS specification will be rolled into a broader W3C standards effort called Resource Description Framework (RDF).

In a separate move related to the children's summit, The Learning Company (TLC) today announced a "safe chat" feature for the popular Internet filter Cyber Patrol, which The Learning Company acquired last month.

The new feature uses a list of safe Internet chat and message boards to limit children's access to Internet Relay Chat, Web-based chat rooms, and Web-hosted message boards. Children are guided into secure chat rooms and message areas, and are only allowed to participate in chat or message boards at Web sites where the discussions are either monitored using automated tools or overseen by a full-time moderator.

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