Violence and sex are regulars on the nightly news. (Think Andrew Phillip Cunanan.) But when the same stories appear on the Net, they can easily be blocked by the latest content rating and filtering systems.
News organizations don't take kindly to being censored, especially by software. So an ad hoc coalition known as the Internet Content Coalition is supporting the idea of a "news" rating, which could allow journalistic sites to automatically bypass filters unless a Netizen blocks the news manually. The idea is growing into a self-regulatory policy, but it relies on some controversial decision-making: who should be allowed to use the rating and how is that determined?
The ICC was organized by representatives from MIT and the WELL. Since then, a group including Playboy Enterprises, NBC, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM) have joined to help define the criteria for the "news" rating.
The idea is that blocking technologies, which filter based on keywords such as "murder," could be reconfigured to let users receive the news-labeled content. Parents could also "unblock" news stories for their children by using systems, such as RSACi, which rate content on a scale of one to ten for nudity and foul language, for example. News sites that are filtered under the current rating system may be unwittingly blocked by Net users who set their browsers to ban sites that rate too high on the scale.
The established news organizations and new media start-ups already have presented President Clinton with a letter outlining the ICC's intentions, which happen to fit the White House's philosophy of self-regulation on the Net. That effort accelerated since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act last month.
But as the voluntary group garners support, some in the often skeptic news world are growing leery of who will be left out of the news category.
If the ICC ultimately decides who is eligible for the online news rating, it may challenge "mislabeled" news sites; sites could lose their journalism tag from peer pressure. Without a "seal of approval," sites could be exiled back to the one-to-ten ratings aimed at filtering the Net's "most unwanted" pornographers.
"We can't allow the government to use political pressure and technology to accomplish what it is forbidden to do under the Constitution: establish a licensing system for journalism," said Steve Yelvington, editor of the online edition of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. "The bottom line for me is that anything other than self-nomination is unacceptable. No 'official' body ought to be deciding who gets to practice journalism."
Criteria to define news already are being drafted within the ICC. For example, under one broad definition, a site could use the label if it is regularly updated with news that was reported and edited for a public audience.
Optimistic members say the ICC-proposed news rating will be aimed at protecting news sites from being broadly banned by filtering technologies. It does not aim to be an agent of the government to protect children from online smut.
"There has never been a technology that allows news to be turned on and off," said Elizabeth Osder, a content development editor for the New York Times's Web site. "The New York Times has only agreed to participate in discussions about what kind of information constitutes news information. When all is said and done, we should self-regulate."
Others say the ICC is only a starting point and will likely work with other groups, even though it was invite-only when launched in February.
Still, some critiques of the rating say a peer review system for defining news sites can turn ugly. For example, the Congressional press gallery in Washington approves credentials based on a peer review, and some publications have been excluded based on alleged personal conflicts, according to Melinda Gipson of the Newspaper Association of America.
"Give a 'legitimate' press person a gavel and he or she instantly becomes a tin-horn bureaucrat," she said.