To quell public and political concern about children's access to pornography and "harmful" material, the U.S. government, the European Union, and others have called on the online industry to help consumers block material they find unsuitable.
However, online ratings systems have proven controversial. Civil liberties advocates worry that if a single rating system is broadly adopted, it will be easier both technologically and legally for governments to mandate ratings regimes or the use of filters, or to ban controversial sites altogether. Moreover, prominent news organizations such as MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN have stated in the past that they will not comply with ratings.
Despite criticism, members of the newly formed Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) will meet in Munich next week to try to advance the use of ratings through their powerful market influence. Members include heavyweights such as America Online Europe, Microsoft, IBM, British Telecom, and the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think tank started by the eponymous media giant, which also is AOL's partner in Europe.
Until now, uniform ratings have been difficult to implement on the Net because there are several different ratings systems, and computer users aren't utilizing them in great numbers. In addition, the global nature of the Internet means more governments and organizations need to be represented.
But the ICRA is looking to adopt a policy to bolster voluntary ratings worldwide at the Internet Content Summit September 9 through 11, which will be attended by about 300 executives, government officials, legal scholars, and consumer advocates.
"We believe there needs to be a reshuffling of responsibility away from the government to focus on industry solutions, such as rating and filtering mechanisms, as well as education campaigns to foster compliance," said Jens Waltermann, deputy head of media for the Bertelsmann Foundation, which is hosting the summit along with a group dubbed the Internet Content Rating for Europe (INCORE).
The focal point of the summit is expected to be a 12-point memorandum spearheaded by Bertelsmann over the last nine months and drafted by Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin in conjunction with an expert panel including former White House adviser Ira Magaziner, nonprofit groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and international law enforcement and government officials.
"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.
Mimicking other self-regulatory plans, Bertelsmann's memo suggests that Web sites develop codes of conduct and that Internet service providers remove illegal sites upon notification. It also suggests that governments and industry groups set up hot lines for Net users and others to report questionable online content.
The recommendation that will spark the most debate, however, concerns the rating of online material.
"At the core of the recommendations for an integrated system of self-regulation and end-user autonomy must be an improved architecture for the rating and filtering of Internet content," the memo states. "Content providers worldwide must be mobilized to label their content, and filters must be made available to guardians and all users of the Internet to make more effective choices about the content they wish to have enter their homes."
ICRA's board will meet at the summit and could adopt the Bertelsmann proposal or a paper expected to be floated by INCORE.
"ICRA is obviously free to adopt our recommendations or to reject them," the Bertelsmann Foundation's Waltermann added. "But with ICRA there is a chance to get broad support because the standard is so open."
Risk of censorship
The possibility of broad support is exactly what troubles free-speech advocates, who say that ratings can be used by regulators to stifle expression, or that major online service providers could marginalize sites that don't adopt them.
"There is a real danger that the establishment of these systems could, in fact, facilitate government censorship, because once a rating system and the accompanying blocking technology is widely deployed, there will be a strong incentive to require the use of that system," said Electronic Privacy Information Center general counsel David Sobel, who will attend the meeting.
"If the Munich meeting truly reflects the sentiments of the Internet community, there will not be a consensus in support of rating and filtering," he added.
Others agree that industry plans shouldn't become tools for censorship.
"The challenge with self-regulation is that all of these organizations don't end up cops for the government," said Esther Dyson, chair of EDventure Holdings and a member of Bertelsmann's expert network.
These concerns are not lost on Stephen Balkam, who helped develop the Recreation Software Advisory Council's voluntary ratings system, the springboard for the creation of the ICRA.
"We have made a particularly strong effort to involve the civil libertarians in this debate," Balkam said.
Before next summer, the Recreation Software Advisory Council rating system, which uses a numerical scale for nudity, violence, and other categories, will be updated for the release of the latest versions of Microsoft and Netscape Web browsers. The leading Net companies behind ICRA also will kick off a marketing campaign to get Web site operators and their partners, subsidiaries, and customers to rate their sites.
The ratings categories will be expanded to give Webmasters and Net users more choices, Balkam said. Then, organizations, companies, and others can create templates that Net users can download to filter sites. For example, a parent could trust the rating levels of his or her local library.