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Global Net ratings committee emerges from Munich summit

Despite criticism from free-speech advocates, America Online and other major online firms have formed an advisory body to review proposals for creating a global system for rating Web content.

Despite criticism from free-speech advocates, America Online and other major online firms have formed an advisory body to review several proposals that could create a global system for rating and filtering Web content.

The plans were presented at the Internet Content Summit in Munich, which was attended by about 300 Net industry executives, government officials, legal scholars, and consumer advocates.

At the close of the meeting, the newly formed Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) voted to AOL, others plan global Net content rating systemname members to an advisory board by the end of the month. By next summer the board will make recommendations to ICRA to push forward content control tools for Net users, primarily by encouraging Web publishers around the world to rate their sites so surfers can omit content they find undesirable.

Any proposal adopted by ICRA could spur the widespread adoption of ratings for the Net similar to those seen in the television and motion picture industries. Backers of ICRA include AOL Europe, Microsoft, IBM, British Telecom, and the Bertelsmann Foundation--a policy research center started by the German media giant, which hosted the summit and also is America Online's partner in Europe.

"The advisory board will be made up of about a dozen people around the world--academics, child practitioners, media experts--who will take a look at all the proposals as well as other comments that are coming through on our Web site," said ICRA executive director Stephen Balkam, who helped develop the prominent Recreation Software Advisory Council's voluntary ratings system.

"The advisory board will put together a proposal for the ICRA board with a way to go forward with the new systems," he added.

Too much content control?
Still, free speech advocates warned at the summit that a universal Net rating system would threaten online expression, because government officials could use the industry effort as a springboard for content control mandates.

Moreover, civil liberties groups say that under a universal ratings scheme, only "mainstream" Net content, created by established media companies, would be easily accessible. In addition, they worry that controversial sites, or those that refuse to rate, could be squeezed out by online gatekeepers, such as the huge Net access providers that support the ICRA.

"The broader issue here is that they are talking about an international system of content control," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"The Web is not content in the broadcast format where there is one person controlling the output; the people who would be burdened by this are the unique speakers on the Net," Mulligan said. "These plans brings the private sector into more of a monitoring and governing role, and there are many forms of coercion that could lead us down the path of having a single labeling system for content."

Under the most prominent proposal, spearheaded by Bertelsmann and written by Yale First Amendment law professor Jack Balkin, 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 Balkin paper also calls for companies to adopt codes of conduct, such as working with law enforcement to rid the Net of illegal or "harmful" content. In addition, organizations would be encouraged to create "white lists" of valuable sites that aren't rated, but which also shouldn't be automatically barred, such as news sites.

The plan will only work if a majority of sites adopts the ratings, which is where the ICRA comes in. ICRA's goal is to stave off government regulation by showing that that voluntary industry efforts work better. It already is encouraging Web site operators and their partners, subsidiaries, and customers to rate their sites.

Room for advocates?
It's not yet clear, however, whether free speech watchdogs will be invited to participate in ICRA's advisory board, Balkam said. It is unlikely that advocates would be agreeable contributors.

"I don't see a role for us in selecting the 'best' rating system," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"This is mainstreaming the Net, and all we can continue to do is sound the alarm about these potential dangers," he added.

In the meantime, industry is building momentum on other fronts to beef up self-regulatory guidelines to curb minors' access to adult-oriented Net content.

With failed attempts by Congress to limit content through regulations, Europe is fast becoming the new breeding ground for Net policy.

European summits
A string of conferences will take place in Europe this year focusing on how to bolster the Net as a commercial marketplace while ridding it of "harmful" content, such as pornography.

For example, an industry proposal to limit access to "harmful" content was unveiled in Paris yesterday by the Global Business Dialog on Electronic Commerce, which includes 200 of the world's most influential high-tech and media companies. Also led by AOL, the consortium trumped the voluntary use of filtering technologies and ratings as the most desirable solution.

"Neither governments, nor other public or private sector enterprises, should interfere in any way in basic and personal decisions of consumers relating to the consumption of legal content," the group stated.

"Business is very motivated to continue to develop market-based solutions to protect minors from harmful content on the Internet, not only because of the important public policy interests at stake, but also because such solutions help generate consumer confidence and are ultimately good for business," the group added.

Industry-imposed rules for the Net that are supported by the government also will be the focus of the World Summit of Regulators on the Internet conference in Paris starting November 30, which will be sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Under a plan that will be presented at the international forum, regulatory authorities would define principles for conduct on the Net that would be applied by private operators.

"Coregulation seems to be the most suitable solution," Herve Bourges, chairman of the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA), France's broadcasting watchdog, told Reuters. "It's a question of balancing freedom of expression, individuals' rights, and law."

Reuters contributed to this report.