Can the Net police itself?
September 16, 1998
by Paul Heltzel
(IDG) -- It's tough to be a Net-savvy parent these days. As the Starr report hit the Web Friday, experts testified before a House Commerce subcommittee on how best to protect children from online obscenity. If you're wondering how to keep inappropriate material from your kids while they surf, you might be surprised to know that your browser may already have this capability. The question is: Does it work?
Internet Explorer has supported RSACi, a rating system developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, since version 3.0. And Netscape's most recent browser, Communicator 4.06, also supports RSACi, which is based on the Platform for Internet Content Selection standard. (Communicator also employs another PICS-compliant rating system, SafeSurf.)
The RSACi system requires that Webmasters add a few lines of code to their sites, allowing your browser to interpret the level and nature of sex, nudity, violence, or offensive language found on the site.
RSACi got a shot in the arm last week, winning the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize for providing "a proven framework for the regulation of content on the Internet," according to Dr. Mark Wossner, deputy chair of the board of the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Still, how effective can a self-regulating system be? Steve Shannon helped develop the underlying technology in RSACi. Shannon is the president of Content Advisor, which makes a server-based search and filtering program for corporate networks. He says his company created a system that searches out adult sites and adds them to a database because the self-policing RSAC model is aware of only a tiny portion of the hundreds of millions of pages on the Web.
"The self-rating model is not a good way to go," Shannon says. "In the first year [of RSAC] there were only 40,000 sites rated, less than 10 percent were of an adult nature and less than half are still around today. It has already lost the race against the Internet's massive growth."
RSAC says more than 85,000 sites are registered with the system and thousands more register each month.
"We have found that adult sites don't want children coming to them," says Stephen Balkam, president of RSAC. "Playboy was one of the first sites to register with us. We also feel that a system that lets parents decide what sort of content children can access is preferable. It's not an on/off switch."
For example, Balkam says the pages with salacious details from the Starr report could have been rated individually, allowing young browsers to view the majority of the report.
However, the system allows -- and the RSAC Web site encourages -- parents to block all access to unrated sites, which is likely to be effective if heavy handed. Thus, if only a small portion of sites have rated themselves, a lot of the Web will be inaccessible to kids.
Edith Gong, a product manager at Netscape points out that the system can be used in conjunction with a third-party site that will provide ratings for sites that have not rated themselves.
"Self-regulation is inherently flawed in some respects," she notes. "PICS is a good standard for protecting young children, but we recommend that you spend time with your kids and be aware of what they're doing on the Internet."
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