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International Net ratings plan under fire

Free-speech advocates are trying to derail an international plan to slap movie-like ratings on Internet content that could be adopted by leading online companies this week.

Free-speech advocates are trying to derail an international plan to slap movie-like ratings on Internet content, a scheme that could be adopted by leading online companies this week.

As first reported by CNET News.com, at the Internet Content Summit in Munich this Thursday through Saturday, about 300 Net industry executives, government officials, legal scholars, and consumer advocates will debate a global framework for rating Net content. The outcome could mark the most aggressive push so far toward a system to filter nudity, hate speech, vulgar language, and other material online.

The U.S. government, the European Union, and other nations are rallying to curb minors' AOL, others plan global Net content rating
system access to "harmful" Web sites. But the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, which includes 17 human rights organizations and policy think tanks, issued a statement today warning that a blanket Net rating system would threaten free expression.

"When closely scrutinized, these systems should be viewed more realistically as fundamental architectural changes that may, in fact, facilitate the suppression of speech far more effectively than national laws alone ever could," the group wrote.

The plan is expected to gain acceptance by members of the newly formed Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), including AOL Europe, Microsoft, IBM, British Telecom, and the Bertelsmann Foundation--a policy research center started by the German media giant, which also is America Online's partner in Europe.

The rating system is laid out in a 12-point memorandum that will be released this week. The proposal was spearheaded by Bertelsmann in conjunction with an expert panel, including the European divisions of major Net firms, former White House adviser Ira Magaziner, and nonprofit groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Mechanisms have to be developed to deal with illegal content and to protect children online. But they also have to protect free speech," states the memo, which was obtained by CNET News.com.

A uniform Net content rating system has been difficult to implement because there already are several different systems, and computer users aren't utilizing them in great number. Moreover, the global nature of the Internet means that more governments and organizations want to help formulate the blueprint.

Under the proposal, a ratings system--most likely the Recreation Software Advisory Council system, which already is incorporated into major Web browsers--would be expanded to give Webmasters and Net users more choices for classifying content. Organizations, companies, and others could then create templates that Net users could download to filter Web sites. For example, a parent could trust the rating levels of his or her local school board.

The plan will only work if a majority of sites adopts the ratings. That is where the ICRA comes in; it will encourage Web site operators and their partners, subsidiaries, and customers to rate their sites.

But members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign worry that voluntary ratings will not satisfy government officials, who could use the industry effort as a springboard for mandates.

"Contrary to their original intent, such systems may actually facilitate governmental restrictions on Internet expression," the group wrote.

"Additionally, rating and filtering schemes may prevent individuals from discussing controversial or unpopular topics, impose burdensome compliance costs on speakers, distort the fundamental cultural diversity of the Internet, enable invisible 'upstream' filtering, and eventually create a homogenized Internet dominated by large commercial interests," the letter continued.

Representatives of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign will attend the meeting this week to distribute the letter, as well as a report by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that examines the potential problems of online rating and filtering systems, dubbed Filters & Freedom: Free Speech Perspectives on Internet Content Controls.