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Journalists meeting on ratings

A group of media firms are holding a private meeting in New York tomorrow to discuss the idea of applying a "news" label to their Web content to bypass Net filtering software.

A group of media companies are holding a private meeting in New York tomorrow to discuss the idea of applying a "news" label to their Web content in order to bypass technology that censors violent or sexual Net sites.

The Internet Content Coalition consists of some well-known players in the print and online news world, which are now grappling with how to publish on the Net without being filtered by ratings systems or blocking software. Both technologies have gained new popularity upon the death of the Communications Decency Act.

The ICC has barely gotten started, but it is already fueling controversy over its invitation-only membership and the fact that this week's meeting is closed to the working press.

The coalition has found itself under the microscope of its uninvited peers. Some say the ICC is on the road to creating voluntary guidelines for the use of the "N" label, which could become de facto rules in cyberspace along with other online industry self-regulations. Others say the ICC is just too small and shouldn't engage in the debate without broader representation.

"A group that pretends to be representing journalists barring journalists from covering its meetings?" asked Joshua Quittner, editor of the Netly News and director of news for Pathfinder. "It would be laughable if not for the fact that so many erstwhile journalists--who should know better--are participating.

"It's not the smallness of the ICC that matters; it's the futility of its attempt to rate news or define news organizations on the Web that's so preposterous," he added. "Any self-appointed group, no matter how large, that tries to set moral standards for the Internet suffers from megalomania. This is, after all, a global medium. Moreover, it's one that happily ignores political rules."

But active members of the group, which started meeting in February, say they are trying to expand and will brief the working press after the meeting.

"We wanted to make sure the attendees could engage in a really free-formed discussion. We want them to be able to talk about things without anything being misconstrued so there can really be a debate and people can change their minds if they want," said Maria Wilhelm, cofounder of the ICC and president of The WELL.

"That's not to say that we won't be very up-front about what happened in the meeting," she added.

By limiting attendance to its meetings, the ICC may also be trying to avoid speculation and further controversy. "We want to have a discussion without having an auditorium-size debate. We're trying to clarify our position on the news label," said Chris Barr, the editor in chief of CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM), who sits on ICC's board of directors. CNET will not be represented at the meeting due to unforeseen circumstances.

Those expected to attend the meeting tomorrow include staff from MSNBC, the New York Times, the Associated Press, BusinessWeek, CNN, Time Incorporated, the Los Angeles Times, and others. The National Newspaper Association also is expected.

Although there is no agenda for the meeting, Wilhelm said the only thing that some ICC members have agreed on in the past is that they won't rate their sites under the current systems.

The Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSACi) rating system, for example, lets content providers self-label their sites' pages on a scale of one to ten for nudity, sex, or foul language. Browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer can read the rating labels and block material based on a user's settings. News stories could be banned using even the lowest settings. With the "N" label, supported by RSACi, news would be a separate category that surfers could accept or prohibit altogether.

In July, Wilhelm meet with a small group of White House policy advisers, RSCAi, and others during President Clinton's "technology empowerment" day. She gave the advisers a list of ICC members who said they would not rate content and who had agreed to explore alternatives to current ratings systems, including use of the "N" label. She said the ICC did not give President Clinton a letter outlining its goals, as previously reported by NEWS.COM and by others.

"We want to encourage a real focus on the various technologies that may limit people's access to information and news," Wilhelm said. "We hope to get together the most inclusive group possible to develop some sort of evolving standards and practices. This meeting is only the start--not the end--of a debate and discussion."

Others who will be in attendance were surprised that reporters wouldn't be allowed to attend the meeting. "While we're guests at the ICC table and had nothing to do with its press policy, I do find it ironic that a group with the interests of 'news' sites at heart should choose to exclude working journalists," said Melinda Gipson, director of new media business development for the Newspaper Association of America.

But she added: "Yet how different is this from the conduct of so many other self-anointed Internet bodies? As a longtime, card-carrying investigative reporter and editor, I would find it more interesting if the Net news media's pique over their exclusion from this discussion ushered some 'sunshine' into the rest of the Internet's back rooms."

Other organizations that develop standards for the Net do hold discussions behind closed doors. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which adopts technological standards for the Net, doesn't publish the minutes of most of its working group meetings.

"There are a lot of companies, which are competitors, and which come together under our roof to collaborate. In the working group, they speak confidentially because they are talking about technical directions and they have a lot at stake. The trust gives them a lot more opportunity to move faster." said Sally Khudairi, W3C's spokeswoman.

"Some working drafts get released very quickly," she added. "But if something is under discussion in a working group, that doesn't mean they are going to take it in that direction."