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Netscape to support Web ratings

Netscape's move to support site rating systems in Communicator 4.5 will likely bolster the use of these online content controls.

The move to support Web site rating systems in Netscape Communications' Communicator 4.5--to be rolled out Wednesday, according to sources--will likely bolster the use of these online content controls.

Netscape announced earlier this month that its Netcenter portal site and future versions of its browser would include "smart browsing" capabilities such as NetWatch, a feature that lets consumers filter out online sites using a variety of tools. The features will first be available this week in Communicator 4.5, sources close to the release told CNET NEWS.COM.

The No. 1 browser company's support of Net rating systems is expected to boost the number of sites that rate their content, and also increases the likelihood that parents will set their browsers to screen out certain online material while their children surf the Web. Institutions as powerful as the White House have been pushing for these kinds of filtering options--instead of regulation--to prevent minors from accessing adult materials online.

Specifically, Communicator 4.5 supports the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), which allows organizations to set up Net site labeling or ratings systems.

Like Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which has supported PICS since version 3.0, this version of Communicator will let online users screen out adult language, violence, and nudity using two PICS-complaint ratings systems, RSACi (Recreational Software Advisory Council) and SafeSurf. The ratings themselves are applied to Web pages by content providers.

Netscape's move also will breathe new life into RSAC's system, which is used by 70,000 sites but lost some momentum when a large group of media companies decided not to apply RSAC ratings to their news sites.

With Netscape on board, however, some free-speech advocates are concerned about the widespread support of online rating systems. Censorship foes worry that lawmakers will be encouraged to mandate the use of the Net rating systems or criminalize "misrating"--a legislative idea that has come up before. A SafeSurf white paper also proposed that tampering with labels should be illegal.

"Rating systems destroy one of the most attractive aspects of the Net, which is the lack of intermediaries," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"One concern about ratings capability becoming [widespread] is that pressure will grow for legislation," he added. "That gets us right back to where we were with the Communications Decency Act."

In fact, June 26 marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the CDA, a law that made it a felony to transmit or display indecent material that could be seen by minors. With the demise of the CDA, lawmakers and the Clinton administration began endorsing technological barriers to keep children out if the Net's "adults-only" areas.

At a White House summit following the CDA decision, one highly touted mechanism to shield minors from adult content was the adoption of Net ratings systems that were compatible with PICS.

Net filtering software programs, some of which work with PICS, also were pushed at the summit. After the summit, news reports said the president of Lycos had gone so far as to challenge other search engines to exclude sites without ratings.

More so than ratings systems, blocking programs have come under fire for screening out droves of valuable material such as safe sex Web sites based on keywords, for example.

Based on the White House push for "parental empowerment" tools, others say the wide adoption of rating schemes actually will help stave off regulation of Net speech.

"We think that diversity in filtering options can be a constructive protocol for the Net, and the PICS protocol can help make viable a wide range of filtering choices," said Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"The worst thing that could happen from our perspective is the dominance of one rating or filtering system," he added. "Individual filtering is editing, and that is a core First Amendment right. Filtering by public institutions, however, would be censorship."

Some advocates would prefer to see parents use ratings rather than filtering programs.

"SafeSurf and RSACi are definitely two of the less offensive ratings systems on the Net," said Loren Javier, interactive media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD released a report last year that blasted filtering programs for censoring online homosexual information.

"SafeSurf does [bring up] some concerns because it separates homosexual themes and heterosexual themes in its ratings," he added. "Rating systems for film and TV have treated the gay and lesbian community unfairly. We hope we don't see that on the Net because this community thrives on the Net."