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Wash. Post on Ratings Proposal


Plan for Self-Rating of Web Sites Assailed

By John Schwartz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 1999; Page E03

A proposal to extend to the world at large a system that uses
self-ratings to protect children from Internet pornography has
come under attack from civil liberties groups. They contend it
might become the basis of mandatory government ratings.

Under the system, operators of Web sites would post ratings that
they think match their content. "Filtering" software that
parents can use to regulate what sites their children see works
automatically with the ratings and can be set to block access to
sites with certain ratings.

The plan is laid out in a "Memorandum on Self-Regulation of the
Internet" and was presented last week as the centerpiece of a
major "Internet Content Summit" hosted in Munich by the
Bertelsmann Foundation, funded by the German media giant
Bertelsmann AG.

An earlier effort in the United States to implement such a
system by a group now called the Internet Content Ratings
Association has resulted in 120,000 sites rating themselves, a
small fraction of the millions on the World Wide Web. The Munich
proposal attempts to breathe life into that system and extend it

Already supporting the previous system are Bertelsmann,
International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp., AOL
Europe, and telecommunications firms British Telecommunications
PLC and Cable & Wireless PLC.

Most filtering software products are based on enormous lists of
specific sites deemed objectionable by teams of human reviewers
or by computer programs. Both approaches lead to products that
can inadvertently block material that is not objectionable or
allow material that is to slip through.

Self-rating removes some of the guesswork, advocates say. Many
people who run adult sites have been willing to declare that
fact through ratings, to avoid accusations that they are
peddling their wares to children.

"It is in the best interest of industry to commit to
self-regulatory mechanisms," Mark Wossner, chairman of the
Bertelsmann Foundation, said in a statement. "The Internet is
the medium of free expression and has to remain just that, even
if safeguards for your protection against illegal content need
to be provided."

Opponents say a voluntary system could easily evolve into a
regime of government-mandated filtering. Esther Dyson,
chairwoman of EDventure Holdings and a longtime advocate of
online civil liberties, said in an electronic-mail message that
while she applauded the foundation's attempts "to deal with a
tough issue," the plan "leaves me feeling distinctly queasy."

The proposal could end up creating "a worldwide bureaucracy
always forced to take the 'safe' route, calling for the removal
of questionable content," she said.

Other critics say the system could result in small Web site
creators getting filtered out if they refuse to adopt the rating
system. "The proposal is as much about making the Internet safe
for large media companies as it is about making the Internet
safe for children," said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, part of the Global Internet Liberty

Donna Rice Hughes, vice president of Enough Is Enough, a group
that favors Internet regulation, expressed frustration with
civil liberties groups, many of which have called in the past
for self-regulation as an alternative to government Internet
restrictions. "If they're balking at the idea, ultimately they
don't want to see these types of solutions in place," Rice
Hughes said. "They want 'anything goes.' "

Yale Law School professor Jack M. Balkin, whose ideas were
adopted in the Bertelsmann proposal, said he hopes to create a
system of self-regulation as an alternative to government
initiatives that he feels would do more damage to civil

"In this information age, filtering is inevitable," Balkin said,
because "there's too much information chasing too few minds."
Balkin said he designed his proposal to address civil
libertarians' concerns about filtering, saying he is "completely
and irrevocably opposed to governments" forcing citizens to use

 1999 The Washington Post Company

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