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Explorer helps police Net

Microsoft's latest version of Internet Explorer supports the PICS standard for rating offensive content online, a major step toward self-regulation of the Net.

In a significant step toward proving that the Internet can police itself, Microsoft's latest version of its Internet Explorer 3.0 Web browser supports the PICS standard for rating content.

The Platform for Internet Content Selection standard gives users control over the kinds of material they deem appropriate for children without imposing restrictions on companies or services that provide such material. The standard is designed to work with browsers as well as the myriad of filtering applications that have been developed to help parents, companies, and others block out potentially offensive sites.

In their challenge to the Communications Decency Act, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups cited PICS as an example of an effective blocking mechanism that worked without government intervention. Government attorneys argued that such programs could not possibly block all offensive sites and would likely be circumvented as technology develops.

Microsoft's support for PICS is important because it lets users block inappropriate sites from the browser itself without having to buy third-party filtering software: everybody that uses Explorer can now police their Internet content with some extra effort but no extra expense.

To employ the standard, Internet Explorer 3.0 users simply fill out a form on its Content Advisor, which supports form and select ratings for language, nudity, sex, and violence. PICS reads the form and determines which sites are to be blocked, depending on the chosen ratings.

PICS is already supported in filtering software including Cyber Patrol, SurfWatch, NetNanny, CyberSitter and NewView.

Netscape Communications has said it will also support PICS, but hasn't set a time frame. Version 3.0 of Navigator to be released Monday will not support PICS.

Explorer will support the two most prominent PICS-compatible rating systems Recreational Software Advisory Council and SafeSurf. The rating systems read and interpret the PICS code embedded in PICS-compliant Web sites. They then compare them to a list of criteria for what is appropriate content. Parents or educators can pick the rating system that most closely corresponds to their values.

The RSAC rating system, for example, was developed in 1994 by a team of academics, psychologists, and educators, in response to the threat of U.S. congressional legislation to control the levels of violence in the computer games industry. RSAC was adapted for the Internet in February 1996. CyberPatrol and SurfWatch are based on both RSAC and SafeSurf.

Industry executives and online civil rights advocates hope that, with PICS, the government will see that the Internet is capable of adequately overseeing itself, a key issue in legal challenges to the Communications Decency Act. "We have always said that we are for free speech, and we hope that message gets across to Congress and governments around the world that the industry is taking this issue seriously," said Stephen Balkam, RSAC's executive director.

The potential objection to self-rating is that content providers must choose to participate in the system and voluntarily rate their site based on a variety of questions. With Explorer, however, users can block any site that isn't rated. Balkam believes that the "check box" to block unrated sites will compel Web developers to get regulated. He plans to contact the top unrated 300 to 400 sites in the next few months.

Content providers could also lie, but could then face a lawsuit, according to Ray Soular, chairman of SafeSurf. "Most people realize they are opening themselves up for a definite case of child endangerment if they deliberately try to distribute adult material to minors so I don't think it will happen," he said.

Soular said he deals with "misunderstandings" when they occur and said he has never found a site that was falsely rated.

RSAC randomly checks sites for false ratings and takes action if needed. "We encourage citizens of the Net to let us know via email if they come across a pornographic site that isn't properly rated," Balkam said.

About 50,000 sites have registered with SafeSurf and 250,000 registered with RSAC.

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