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Cybertimes on International Ratings


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 
see and
                     can set their Web browsers to block rated material 
they deem
                     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 
those who
                     have rated include many of most heavily trafficked Web
                     sites, as well as numerous pornographic sites that 
wish to
                     keep children out and children's sites that wish to 
                     children in.
                     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 
might want
                     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 
ways in
                     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 
a new
                     international system whereby Web publishers would rate 
                     own content and parents could then choose either to 
block or
                     allow access to material based on how the ratings mesh 
                     their values.
                     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 
troubled by
                                 the prospect of any global rating system.

                     Balkam says the Internet Content Rating Association 
plans to
                     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
                     were unsuccessful.
                     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 
                     is nonprofit.
                     Last May, the Recreational Software Advisory Council, 
also a
                     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 
made up
                     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 
on the
                     association's Web site. Among the ideas the group 
plans to
                     examine are proposals expected from INCORE, a European 
                     that has received money from the European Union to 
study the
                     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
                     the tool?"
                     Balkam also said he believed a new system could 
attract more
                     interest from both parents and publishers with some
                     fine-tuning -- beyond figuring out what parents 
outside the
                     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 
rated," he