Tech firms have Clinton's ear

Surrounding the White House's "cybertots" summit, Internet technology companies such as Netscape announce new efforts to limit underage surfing on the Net's naughty side.

3 min read
Surrounding the White House's "cybertots" summit today, Internet technology companies such as Netscape Communications (NSCP) announced new efforts to limit underage surfing on the Net's naughty side.

Netscape said it will finally support PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) rating technology in version 5.0 of its browser, a system that is already supported by Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

PICS, proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium, lets Web developers label sites with invisible tags that indicate if its content is sexual, violent, or drug-related, for example. Users can then adopt a rating system created by an organization they trust, such as the PTA, and program their browsers to allow only sites that meet the designated standards.

With the Communications Decency Act rejected by the Supreme Court, President Clinton told parents in a press conference today to use ratings systems such as PICS and blocking software to shield children from adult online material. This morning, he and Vice President Al Gore also met with parents groups, civil liberties advocates, legislators, and software companies in a closed meeting to discuss how to make the Net safe for kids.

Netscape had already endorsed PICS but hadn't set up the architecture to support it yet. "The White House has adopted a strategy of user empowerment technologies and PICS is a major part of that. The White House asked if we were going to set a date to incorporate PICS; we said we'd include it the next version," said Peter Harter, global public policy counsel for Netscape.

But Harter added that getting content providers to actually use such labels is not the only challenge, "You can filter and block but you also have to produce good content."

Other companies also said they would step up offerings to help parents. IBM said it will contribute $100,000 dollars to the development of the RSACi (Recreational Software Advisory Council) content labeling system, which is supported by PICS.

Whereas PICS is an architecture that support ratings, RSACi is an actual ratings system, similar to the system used to categorize motion pictures. RSACi ratings classify, for example, sites that show "passionate kissing" or "partial nudity."

Microsystems Software, the maker of Cyber Patrol, also unveiled its new CyberRate system that lets Web site creators easily attach PICS-supported labels to their sites.

In addition, CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM), Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo told the White House that they will adopt a self-regulated rating system for content on the Net.

But commercial content providers only represent one segment of the Net. Newsgroups and personal home pages may also contain "objectionable material," and that's where blocking or filtering software comes in.

Most systems search for keywords such as "sex" and block accordingly. Some criticize the products for banning educational or artistic content. Still, Clinton endorsed the use of such products today.

The Clinton's administration still faces an obstacle in implementing its new "parental empowerment" stance: actually getting people to use the technologies. At least one group is already tackling the problem: an ad hoc coalition of groups that fought off the CDA.

In conjunction with today's meeting, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Voters Telecommunications Watch launched Netparents.org to walk parents through Net content filtering and rating technologies and recommend "kid-safe sites."