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
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
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.