As the Communications Decency Act battle heats up in court and on the Net, a parents' organization-turned-company says it has created its own solution to making the Internet "safe" without government intervention.
SafeSurf is urging the online community to follow its site rating system, which would indicate whether the site is appropriate for minors. Twenty thousand sites have already received ratings based on the SafeSurf Rating System guidelines.
SafeSurf expects its system to become a standard for protecting children online, according to Ray Soular, chairman of SafeSurf. "The reason that the Net got out of control is because it wasn't designed for children. We need to redesign the Net, not censor it. In a few months, parents will finally be able to protect their children online."
The rating system lets parents restrict their children's access to content in different categories including sex, violence, and profanity, and on such topics as AIDS. It was created by both the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and a consortium of 22 industry companies known as the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). The two consortiums created what is called the PICS protocol, which provides browsers with a standardized way to filter rated content. The protocol is now being tested on a server at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Our new rating form supports the PICS protocol, and software developers are being called together to use the system, which will eventually be everywhere," says Soular. "With this system, each parent can protect their children according to their standards. It's like the idea of putting a table of contents in a magazine. For example, a Web page may say, "This site contains nudity, profanity, and urges gambling." If you don't want your child to see or read about those topics, they won't."
The rating system also differentiates between nudity in a classic art form and nudity in Playboy or Penthouse, according to Soular. "This system enables a child to go anywhere on the Net, but only access the content that the parent has predetermined in advance," he says.
Soular predicts that the industry will latch onto the rating system during this period of fear and uncertainty over the outcome of the Communications Decency Act.
"Eventually everyone will rate their sites. If a site isn't rated, it will be viewed as a site that can't be trusted. If a person is not willing to identify what their content is, then obviously they are concealing something, and that would be the type of person you wouldn't want to let in your home," Soular says.
According to Soular, existing filtering or "parental control" software like SurfWatch is inefficient because it's designed to find every possible objectionable site on the Net. He also objects that the software applies the company's, rather than the parent's, standard of what is appropriate.
Worse, he adds, the Communications Decency Act assumes that the government knows more than the parents.
"The telecommunications bill says that the government will control what is indecent for children, and that should be in the parent's hands," says Soular.