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Cybertimes on International Ratings
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- From: Barry Steinhardt <Barrys@aclu.org>
- Date: Sat, 25 Sep 1999 11:27:47 -0400
- Cc: "Weich, Ronald H." <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Phil Gutis <PGutis@aclu.org>, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
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September 25, 1999
Internet Rating System Plans to Globalize
By PAMELA MENDELS
In response to the increasing globalization of the
a content rating and filtering system that was originally
developed primarily for the United States will be
to encompass a more global audience.
Sometime next year, the Internet Content Rating
is scheduled to launch a re-vamped version of a major
ratings and filtering system called RSACi in the hope
it can appeal to parents and Web publishers worldwide.
"RSACi was an American response to an American concern,"
said Stephen C. Balkam, executive director of the
Content Rating Association, a four-month old organization
that has offices in the United States and Britain. "We
to internationalize the system and governing structure."
RSACi was launched in 1996 largely in response to federal
government attempts in the United States to regulate
indecent content online. The system was an offshoot of an
earlier effort to rate the content of computer games by a
group called the Recreational Software Advisory Council.
(RSACi is an acronym for Recreational Software Advisory
Council on the Internet.)
Currently, the RSACi system calls on Web publishers to
their content on a scale of 0 to 4 in four categories:
nudity, violence and language. Parents then decide what
level of content they will permit their children to
can set their Web browsers to block rated material
objectionable. They have the option to decide whether to
admit or block content that has not been rated.
To date, about 120,000 Web sites have rated themselves
RSACi, Balkam said. That is a small number compared to
millions of sites that are online. But Balkam says
have rated include many of most heavily trafficked Web
sites, as well as numerous pornographic sites that
keep children out and children's sites that wish to
The idea behind a re-vamped RSACi is to develop a rating
system that considers the sensibilities of parents around
the world, not just American parents, as the Internet
to attract a bigger global audience. For example, Balkam
said that Europeans as a whole have less concern about
online nudity and more concern about violence than their
American counterparts. In addition, he said, Europeans
harbor a stronger consumer resistance to the idea of
personal information being bought or sold, and so
ratings to reflect Web sites' privacy protections for
The possibility of an international rating system has
in the spotlight lately, because of an ambitious but
controversial proposal released at a conference in Munich
earlier this month.
The document, drawn up by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a
German policy research group, recommends a number of
which the Internet industry could police itself to help
parents prevent their children from accessing potentially
harmful material online. Among them is the creation of
international system whereby Web publishers would rate
own content and parents could then choose either to
allow access to material based on how the ratings mesh
Supporters of the proposal say it could stave off the
possibility of Internet censorship from governments
the world that are growing increasingly concerned about
children's easy access to harmful material online. But
plan has drawn fire from free-speech advocates who say a
global ratings system could invite action by governments
that might be tempted to require publishers to rate
themselves or punish those who misrated their content.
Free-speech advocates remain deeply
the prospect of any global rating system.
Balkam says the Internet Content Rating Association
look closely at the Bertelsmann proposal as well as a
of other ideas before it overhauls the current rating
and introduces a new one, probably next summer.
Although RSACi is perhaps the best known Internet rating
system, it is not the only attempt to rate online
Another effort called SafeSurf, which was founded in 1995
and is based in California, has rated about 175,000 sites
through a combination of self-ratings and ratings by
party" observers, according to Wendy G. Simpson, the
former president. Efforts to reach the current president
A major difference between the two groups is that
is a for-profit business that makes money from
and other sources. The Internet Content Rating
Last May, the Recreational Software Advisory Council,
nonprofit, transferred its assets, including the RSACi
system, to the new Internet Content Rating Association,
which is incorporated in Britain and maintains offices
and in the United States. The Council has financial
from some major North American and European companies and
associations, including the Microsoft Corp., Bell Canada,
British Telecommunications PLC and the Bertelsmann
Foundation, Balkam said.
In coming months, Balkam said, the Internet Content
Association plans to establish an advisory council
of about a dozen scholars, child development experts and
others from around the world to look at various rating
system ideas, including comments being solicited now
association's Web site. Among the ideas the group
examine are proposals expected from INCORE, a European
that has received money from the European Union to
concerns Europeans have about Internet content.
No matter how the new system is fashioned, free-speech
advocates remain deeply troubled by the prospect of any
global rating system, said Barry S. Steinhardt, associate
director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He said one big fear is that because relatively few sites
have so far voluntarily rated themselves under existing
systems, governments with a global system at their
will require publishers to rate or take other intrusive
steps. "Without that element of coercion, RSACi,
either in a
domestic or international version, will fail," Steinhardt
Balkam responds that so far no governments have mandated
that content providers use online rating systems. "It is
possible, sure," he said. "But because something is
does that mean we should dismantle the system and abandon
Balkam also said he believed a new system could
interest from both parents and publishers with some
fine-tuning -- beyond figuring out what parents
United States would like to see filtered.
He hopes, for example, to translate the system into
languages other than English, most likely French, German,
Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin to start.
He would also push to have the rating system appear more
prominently in Web browsers, to make it easier for
to find. Balkam also hopes to get the rating system
integrated into Web authoring tools, so publishers can
themselves more easily and to launch an intense public
relations campaign to promote the system.
"We feel if more and more parents use the system, the
will obviously respond by making sure sites are