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RSAC shelves news rating

The Recreational Software Advisory Council puts its controversial plan to create a special label for news-oriented sites on hold.

    WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Recreational Software Advisory Council, which has created an Internet ratings system for Web sites, has put its controversial plan to create a special label for news-oriented sites on hold.

    RSAC's decision came after resistance from news organizations, particularly from established players in offline media, which raised First Amendment concerns about the so-called "N" label.

    "We are not aggressively pursuing the 'N' label at this time," RSAC executive director Stephen Balkam told CNET's NEWS.COM.

    Earlier this year, RSAC asked the Internet Content Coalition (ICC)--whose members include technology, entertainment, and online news companies--to develop guidelines outlining who should be able to use the label, which was designed to circumvent browsers that screen violent or sexual Net sites by "reading" the voluntary ratings. (See related story)

    But during an August 28 meeting organized by the ICC, most news sites declared that they wouldn't rate their content or use a news label. With the ICC votes in, RSAC essentially lost its market for the label.

    "We will pursue discussions with other potential partners," Balkam said. "We might talk to mainstream press, we might talk to international press. We are conducting a thorough review of the issue."

    Balkam also raised the possibility of approaching other groups that are rating Internet content such as the PTA. "We will be asking others to do research related to the news label," he added, apparently signaling that RSAC may try to rally support from other public interest or special interest groups active on content issues.

    RSAC's principal activity has been to create a ratings system for Web sites, designed to let parents, schools, and employers block access to objectionable material on the Net. The RSAC ratings system works on a framework called PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), created by the World Wide Web Consortium. President Clinton has heralded rating systems a means to "parental empowerment" upon the death of the Communications Decency Act.

    Under the current RSAC rating system, browsers such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer read the ratings and block material based on a user's settings, but under these systems, news stories can be banned using even the lowest settings.

    The "N" label, Balkam said, was designed for news sites so that parents concerned about what their children might see in news reports--such as bloody photographs from terrorist attacks, for example--could use the designation to block their children's access to news sites. Net surfers also could use the label to let news in, while screening out sex, violence, and foul language contained in other "nonjournalistic" sites.

    Still, in order for the "N" label to be effective, RSAC and some within the ICC said only bona fide news sites should be "allowed" to use it. That meant a body, such as the ICC, would have to decide "what is news" on the Net. Journalists working in both new and established media were staunchly opposed to that notion, which led to defeat of the idea within the ICC.

    Balkam said most resistance to the "N" label appears to come from prominent media companies that are moving their operations onto the Internet. "The new media companies seem to get it," he added. Although he declined to name which media conglomerates he considered recalcitrant, those that rebuffed the news label include the New York Times, Time Incorporated, Times Mirror newspapers, the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, and the Associated Press, for example.

    CNN Interactive, ABCNews.com, Reuters New Media, BusinessWeek, the Houston Chronicle, Nando.net, the Magazine Publishers of America, and the National Newspaper Association also signed the agreement against the rating.

    CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM) is also a member of the ICC. CNET's editor in chief, Chris Barr, who sits on the ICC's board of directors, was unable to attend the meeting in New York. Although he advocated setting separate criteria for rating news sites, RSAC rating labels will be removed from NEWS.COM as a result of the ICC agreement.

    MSNBC yanked RSAC ratings from its site in the spring. The cofounder of ICC, James Kinsella of MSNBC, had also said he would not use the "N" label either.

    Not surprisingly, Balkam praised one of MSNBC's parent companies, Microsoft, for its support of PICS and the RSAC ratings system. Microsoft has promised to offer a patch users could download to support the "N" label within Internet Explorer 4.0.

    The RSAC executive director sees a window of six to nine months in which to revive the "N" label, basing that timing on expected release dates of Microsoft's future browser. That also would give RSAC time to let the issue cool for a time--or pick up steam.

    At a panel yesterday at the Software Publishers Association conference here, Balkam also needled Peter Harter, Netscape's public policy counsel, for Netscape's refusal to commit to a date for supporting RSAC's initiative in its browsers.

    Tim Clark is reporting from the Software Publishers Association's meeting in Washington. Courtney Macavinta is reporting from San Francisco.