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Global group seeks movie-like Net ratings

The campaign to apply movie-like ratings to Net content gets a shot in the arm tomorrow with a new effort by major international online companies.

The campaign to apply movie-like ratings to Net content will get a shot in the arm tomorrow with a new effort by major international online companies.

America Online Europe, the Bertelsmann Foundation, British Telecom, Demon Internet, EuroISPA, IBM, Microsoft, and others have formed the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) to promote a system that lets Web publishers review and rate their online material, which can allow parents and Net users to screen out undesirable content.

The association plans to work over the next year with children's advocates, consumer groups, academics, and other companies "to build and manage an internationally acceptable online content rating system" by using the Recreation Software Advisory Council's (RSAC) voluntary ratings, which are now tacked onto more than 100,000 Web sites.

ICRA is one of many groups responding to the White House's ongoing call for new technologies to help curb children's access to sexual or violent content.

RSAC lets content providers self-label Web pages on a scale of one to ten for nudity, sex, or foul language. The ratings already are supported by Netscape Communications and Microsoft's Web browsers.

The ICRA is the result of a two-year working group to expand the rating system's international reach. For example, RSAC will now be folded into the new association, and its ratings will be translated into numerous languages.

"We will get out and survey Web sites, experts, and the public to find out if there should be more categories or rating levels and how we could best tailor it for individual countries that are linked to known rating systems, such as those for motion pictures," Stephen Balkam, president of RSAC, said today.

"One of the messages we are trying to give to governments around the world is that the best way to regulate content is through self-regulation, not through Draconian [methods]," he added.

But RSAC is not without critics.

The group drew fire in 1997 when it considered the idea of creating a "news" rating for journalistic sites. The idea later was abandoned.

Civil liberties advocates also have long feared that global acceptance of Net ratings would spur some lawmakers to mandate their use or cause unintended screening of sites. Opponents are particularly concerned with the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), which allows Net users to adopt a rating system created by an organization they trust, such as the RSAC, and program their browsers to allow only sites that meet the designated standards.

"Under third-party rating systems, unrated sites still may be blocked," the American Civil Liberties Union states in its Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? policy paper.

Net ratings are not like the Motion Picture Association of America's voluntary ratings for movies, the ACLU contends.

"Movies are a static, definable product created by a small number of producers; speech on the Internet is seamless, interactive, and conversational," the paper says. "MPAA ratings also don't come with automatic blocking mechanisms."

Nonetheless, the ICRA says it is simply creating a tool for parents.

"It is not for us or for governments to decide what is inappropriate," said Jens Waltermann of the Bertelsmann Foundation and chairman of the ICRA's board in a statement. "Individual parents should make that choice."