WHILE the television industry awaits a congressional crackdown on TV violence, on-line companies are moving to preempt similar sanctions by regulating themselves.
Two dozen companies, including some of the biggest names in computers and telecommunications, are banding together to create a self-imposed ratings system covering Internet pornography and other objectionable material. The ratings would allow parents to decide what they don't want their children to see on the Internet.
By moving quickly, the newly formed consortium hopes to forestall federal regulation of the emerging international network of computers.
"Instead of creating some government mandate, we'll give people the tools and let them decide what is right," says Mike Homer, vice president of marketing for Netscape Communications Corporation, based in Mountain View, Calif. "All we're trying to do is create a common standard," he says.
The new consortium, to be announced today, is called Platform for Internet Content Selection or PICS.
Much like the movie industry, which gives films an "X," "PG," or some other rating based on their content, PICS would rate the content available on the Internet. It also aims to develop common technical standards.
Setting up such standards is done so that the software used to give consumers access to the Internet would also come with filters that can block certain Internet sites according to their rating.
Conservative filters possible
"You will get a multitude of optional rating systems blossoming from this," says Brian Ek, a spokesman for the on-line service Prodigy and co-chair of PICS's public-policy committee. Some schools might promote one set of filters that parents could adopt. Conservative Christian groups might recommend another.
Some small companies have already begun to offer Internet-filtering software. The new consortium is expected to dramatically boost the use of software filtering, because it is backed by several huge companies, including IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Time Warner, and Viacom's Nickelodeon cable TV channel. PICS also has all three major on-line services on board, as well as Netscape Communications, which created the most-popular graphical viewers for the Internet, and other smaller companies that sell access to the Internet.
The alliance will be coordinated by the World Wide Web Consortium, located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Research Institute of Information Technology in Rocquencourt, France. The consortium and an older alliance made up of Microsoft, Netscape, and two smaller companies - Progressive Networks and SurfWatch Software Inc. - spearheaded the creation of PICS. Both the groups will now work together.
Good for business
"We view this very much positively," says Jay Friedland, vice president of marketing and sales for SurfWatch. The Los Altos, Calif., company, which started business earlier this year, is already one of the leading vendors of Internet-filtering software. SurfWatch officials say they will modify their filtering software when the new standards are agreed upon, probably by year-end.
Children's access to pornography came to notice earlier this year when Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska proposed legislation banning indecent material on the Internet.
The bill was quickly condemned by Internet-related companies as well as free-speech advocates who felt the measure went too far.
But the debate pushed the issue to the forefront of the national agenda. PICS is the industry's attempt to deal with the problem through technology and self-regulation.
Exactly how much pornography and other objectionable material actually exists on the Internet is open to question. It is certainly far less prevalent than portrayed by a recent Time magazine article, which relied heavily on a dubious university report claiming pornography was rampant on the Internet.
Nevertheless, unless restricted by a filtering system, any user with access to the Internet can easily view and retrieve sexually explicit pictures. Companies selling Internet-related products worry that the bad publicity will throttle commercial development of the Internet, which is still in an embryonic stage.
"This is the one place that could cause tremendous amounts of risk" to the Internet, Mr. Friedland says. "What parents want is the simplest possible thing. They want an on-off switch that will give their children a certain level of protection."