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Web giants support content ratings

Yahoo, MSN and America Online are designating child-friendly labels for their Web sites as part of a new self-regulatory Web rating initiative.

Yahoo, MSN and America Online are designating child-friendly labels for their Web sites as part of a new self-regulatory Web rating initiative set to launch Tuesday.

By assigning labels to their sites, the three major Net companies are adopting filtering standards set by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), an international nonprofit comprising industry leaders such as Microsoft, AOL Time Warner, IBM and VeriSign. The group is developing technology that allows parents to filter Web content based on individual preferences, which are matched to self-assigned ratings from Web site operators. It expects to introduce a free product in March.

The campaign, widely supported by civil libertarians, is largely meant to ward off government regulations in this arena.

"Self-regulation of the Internet is the way to go. So we've created a technology that allows content providers a way to label their sites to empower parents to make choices about material that their children can access online," said Mary Lou Kenny, director of ICRA North America, which will launch its campaign Tuesday in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The initiative will kick off just days before Congress is set to discuss government regulations for content-protection mechanisms, such as those being developed by the major record labels and information technology companies, in consumer electronics devices.

To advance its efforts, ICRA has sought support in Congress. A bipartisan set of lawmakers, led by Sen. George Allen, R-Va., plans to introduce a joint resolution encouraging members of Congress to rate their Web sites. In addition, the technology administration at the Department of Commerce has labeled its site.

With endorsements from Yahoo, AOL and MSN, ICRA says the filtering system has influence over 50 percent of the Web's traffic. The organization plans to target operators of sites related to gaming, government, commercial interests, children and adult material. Others that have placed labels on their Web sites are Playboy.com and the Interactive Gaming Counsel, which is advocating the system to its 105 gaming members.

"We think it's important for every Web property--large and small--to use ICRA's system to help ensure children have (a) safe and age-appropriate experience online," Elizabeth Frazee, vice president of public policy for AOL Time Warner, said in a statement.

Rather than blanket ratings such as "PG" or "R" set in the movie industry, ICRA's labels are based on a detailed questionnaire that helps content providers define and describe the content available on their site. ICRA then generates a label, or metatag, that the content provider places on its site.

Based on the same questionnaire, parents can designate material suitable for their children and set their Internet Explorer or Netscape browser to filter sites by reading its tags. For example, parents can set the filter to allow children to view sexual material when it relates to education, medicine or art, unlike some current filters that over-block suitable content. In this instance, a child under the age of 12 would be able to view the human body in Italian art.

The technology will also allow parents to import preferences designated by church groups or community leaders. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has developed a template for filtering hate sites.

The system has received wide support in European countries since ICRA launched a campaign to promote the ratings last December.