- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Top Internet companies yesterday said they will join an industry effort to help parents protect children from potentially objectionable content.
Yahoo Inc., AOL Time Warner Inc. and Microsoft Corp. agreed to participate in the Internet Content Rating Association's (ICRA) filtering program to help parents screen Web sites. Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft's MSN are among the most popular Web sites. Under the program, Web-site operators describe the nature of the content on their site from nudity to information about weapons, gambling or drug use.
Parents then can use ICRA software that the group will make freely available by next spring to block sites that have information they don't want children to see. Parents could block pornographic sites, for instance, or other sites not suitable for children.
"Parents have to be aware of what their kids are doing online," ICRA North American Director Mary Lou Kenny said.
About 200,000 companies have agreed to participate in the filtering project headed by ICRA, a nonprofit group of Internet companies including AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.
"This filter will only be effective with a massive voluntary effort," ICRA Chairman Sheridan Scott said.
Adult sites including playboy.com are among the Web sites that have agreed to use the labeling system.
"We hope Playboy's leadership will be followed by adult sites everywhere," Miss Scott said.
The ICRA is targeting the top 100 adult sites, hoping to convince them to join the effort and label their content, she said. It remains to be seen whether all Web sites will embrace the self-regulatory approach.
"I think that is one issue they face, but it is a good tool for parents," said Catherine Parsons, policy assistant at getnetwise.org, a nonprofit initiative of the Internet Education Foundation in Washington, which provides information about the Internet for parents.
The ICRA system of asking Web sites to describe content so it can be blocked is a different method of screening than standard filtering software, which blocks access to specific Web pages based on the words included on pages.
The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken issue with government use of filtering software.
They filed suit in federal court against the United States last March arguing that the Children's Internet Protection Act violates the First Amendment. The law requires public schools and libraries to install filtering software on their Internet computers to block objectionable Web sites. The case goes to trial next year.
The ICRA filter doesn't raise First Amendment concerns because the agency avoids rating the content on Web sites or forcing anyone to use it said Bob Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer in the District.
"Labeling and filtering of Internet content that is truly voluntary is an approach that empowers parents and respects our fundamental commitment to free expression," he said.
In addition, voluntary filtering programs are better simply because they don't rely on government regulations, said Paula Bruening, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil-liberties group based in Washington.
"The best way to control content is without government intervention. As long as it's voluntary, then it's an appropriate way for users to control information that comes into their homes," she said.

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