Upcoming browsers from both Microsoft and Netscape Communications will help make the new PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) Web-site rating system an industry standard for parental control of Web content.
PICS is a protocol that establishes conventions for describing and labeling Web sites based on such criteria as the amount of sexual content, the level of violence, or any other references that parents might find objectionable. The PICS protocol was created to establish a standard way of controlling Web access to potentially offensive content by a consortium of vendors like Microsoft and Netscape and industry organizations including the World Wide Web Consortium and the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Microsoft announced earlier this week that the next version of Internet Explorer, due to enter beta testing in the spring, will include a Content Advisor feature that supports any rating system that complies with the PICS protocol. With the Content Advisor feature, parents will be able to pick a PICS-compliant rating system, and the browser will automatically prevent access to any site that exceeds the parents' limits on sexual content, nudity, profanity, or other potentially inappropriate subjects.
"This is a good way to still maintain the integrity of free speech and empower parents and educators to control what their children see," said Rob Bennett, a Microsoft product manager.
Microsystems Software and SurfWatch, which both sell software for filtering indecent material, are also planning to support the PICS protocol. Netscape also plans to add PICS support to a future version of Navigator.
So far, two nonprofit organizations have announced PICS-based rating systems for Web sites, SafeSurf and Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Webmasters must voluntarily submit electronic forms to the organizations to receive a rating.
But Microsoft officials anticipate that there will be five to ten such rating systems within the next six months from a variety of organizations interested in protecting children, including religious groups. Microsoft is posting a Web page that describes the various rating systems as they go into effect so that parents can pick which one conforms to their values and priorities.
SafeSurf, a former parents' organization, has devised a rating system with ten categories, including gambling and references to sexually transmitted diseases. SafeSurf has so far rated about 20,000 sites. The RSAC system is based on categories originally developed for rating computer games like Doom in terms of their profanity and violence.
Microsoft will publish the APIs for the Content Advisor features next month at the Internet Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco to make it easier for developers of rating systems and browsers to support PICS.
The Microsoft announcement follows one week after the company joined with America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, and other parties to file a suit against the recently passed Communications Decency Act. All the vendors represented in the suit are working to offer technological solutions to controlling what minors are exposed to on the Web, solutions that would make governmental control of Net content unnecessary.