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Firms take on content standards

In response to President Clinton's cybersummit, AltaVista and Net Shepherd will work on a standard for Net content tagging and filtering.

Digital Equipment's (DEC) AltaVista software group and Net Shepherd said today that they will work toward creating a standard for Internet content tagging and filtering.

The two companies will join Internet service providers, cable operators, telecommunications carriers, and Web site developers in holding a series of meetings to develop standards before the year's end. The meetings will be held in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.

Digital so far has lined up the following to participate: LookSmart; Worldwide Internet Group; Telus Advertising Services; Arabia Online; and McLellan Software. It hopes to line up more, a spokesman said.

The gathering is the latest attempt to work out standards for self-regulating Net content after the Supreme Court's rejection of the Communications Decency Act last month. Since then, the Clinton administration has told parents to use rating systems such as PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) and blocking software to shield children from online material. The comments stemmed from Clinton's cybersummit earlier this week. (See related story)

Internet technology companies, partly to protect their own financial interests, want to make sure that they play a major role in making policy. So far, much of the response has been factionalized.

"Parents, educators, businesses, and general consumers have a right to be able to rate and filter the Internet's content," said Don Sandford, chief executive officer of Net Shepherd, in a statement. "But they must have the freedom to choose from a series of filtering databases which reflect their values and interests."

Added Abe Hirsch, Digital's director of Web business development for its AltaVista group: "A standard must be developed that will protect families, educators, and businesses while respecting the First Amendment right of all individuals."

Until now, most of the industry's response to Net content issues have come in piecemeal announcements. This week, Netscape unveiled new efforts to limit underage surfing on adult sites by supporting the PICS rating system, joining Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0.

Microsystems Software, which makes Cyber Patrol, also announced a system that lets Web site creators easily attach PICS-supported labels to their sites.

But Solid Oak Software, the maker of Cybersitter, which screens Net content, said the Clinton administration's endorsement of site-rating technologies gives parents a false sense of security about where kids can go on the Net.

Reporter Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.