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Presentation of David Kerr, 
Internet Watch Foundation: "Filtering and Rating Content"

What I have to say about filtering and rating content is primarily about the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web and Usenet News, but, as you will see, it also has relevance to other information networks.

The first role of my organisation, the Internet Watch Foundation, has been to establish and operate a hotline service for users to report illegal material on the Internet. Our experience of combating illegal material has exposed two aspects of user needs which a hotline service alone cannot satisfy:

  • It is not possible to quickly remove all illegal material, particularly that which originates from outside the organisation's home country.

  • There is a lot of material which must be classified as legal which is offensive to many users and considered unsuitable or harmful for their children.

It is not my role here, nor do we have the time, to explain in detail how rating and filtering works. It is well documented elsewhere and can already be tried in operation, for example using Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3 and the Recreational Software Advisory Council's RSACi ratings. For more information delegates should visit our INCORE stand at the Conference Exhibition. It is sufficient to say, for the purposes of my presentation, that the means already exist, indeed are already in operation, to place a coded label on an Internet site which describes the content of the site. This has hitherto been referred to as a rating, but it will be better understood and used if we refer to it as a "description of content". With such a label in place any user can use filtering software to set parameters which specify which content codes they will accept and which they reject. This approach, by which the authors describe their content and users define their viewing criteria, allows both free speech to the authors on what they say, or show, and freedom of choice to users in selecting what they wish to see. Importantly it also allows parents, or responsible adults, to specify what children may, and may not, see. This approach is widely and increasingly recognised as a way forward for empowering users and protecting children. For example it is advocated in the European Commission's Green Paper on the Protection of Minors and Human Dignity in Audio-visual and Information Services and, within the last week, has been suggested as an alternative to protecting children from potentially harmful material following the demise of the Communications Decency Act in the United States.

Although the approach is widely advocated in principle, there are several practical steps that must be taken now to implement effective filtering and rating systems that require the understanding and

support of users, the Intemet industry and governments. There needs to be a global system, or at least co-ordination between the major systems around the world. Any system that is specific to one country or community is unlikely to be widely adopted. Content providers will generally only rate their material on a system that gives them a world-wide audience. Users will generally only switch on a system which will let them access information from around the world. There is not yet an acknowledged vehicle to achieve the necessary global co-ordination - and one is urgently needed. There is however already considerable support for creating one: the Recreational Software Advisory Council, which operates the leading rating service from the US and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, responsible for the regulation of Internet content in Australia and a widely respected body in south east Asia, have both pledged to participate in a world forum proposed to the European Commission by INCORE - a group of European organisations representing Internet service providers, publishers and users. Europe itself needs a programme of work, also proposed by INCORE, to specify its requirements of a rating system so that it can speak with one, strong voice in the world context.

Secondly, for a global system to meet the differing cultural requirements of different countries, it is imperative that the content label is an entirely objective description of the content, which is free of cultural values or legal references specific to a particular country. The range of categories within the system must be sufficiently broad to allow users from different countries and cultures to be able to filter out the sorts of material that they are most concerned about. With an international standard for describing content objectively, each country, indeed each user, can exercise their particular national and cultural choices, their subjective view. through the parameters that they set in their software. Let me give you a simple example to illustrate this key point: the content code says "This site contains pictures of naked women; user A in, say, a Muslim country or community may exclude it by setting a low rating on nudity; user B in, say, a northern European country may say "No problem, let it through" by setting a high rating on nudity; but the latter could also say "I do not want my child to see it if there are any explicit sexual overtones" by setting a lower access limit for her. (Different, password protected, settings can be set on one PC.) Note that any of these decisions are independent of whether the particular image is legal or illegal in any of the countries concemed, overcoming some of the complexities of differing legislation across borders.

Finally, the delivery of the system needs to be user friendly. It must meet the needs of the least sophisticated users, which are typically parents with little knowledge of the technology who wish to control the activities of their more technically sophisticated children. The keys to this problem are developments in browsers and the use of profiles. A profile will allow a parent to choose an understood standard, such as a familiar cinema film classification, by selection of a single button, which will activate pre-set parameters in the underlying complex system.

With these three mechanisms - global co-ordination, a standardised objective description and a user- friendly delivery system adapted for participating countries - an effective global system can be quickly achieved. Each, you will appreciate, depends on the support of governments, the efforts of industry and the participation of users. This Conference is an ideal and timely occasion to initiate the relevant action from all the key players. I urge you to grasp that opportunity and commit your organisations to the necessary support and action in your conclusions.

In brief:

  • The technology to make this work is already available.

  • Policies are written and adopted.

  • What is needed, and needed now, is action: action which is co-ordinated internationally and which is supported in each of the participating countries.

  • It is action that must be supported and encouraged by governments; action that is enabled and implemented by the Internet industry and action that is accessible to, and adopted by, users.

Thank you.

David Kerr
Chief Executive, Internet Watch Foundation
5 Coles Lane, Oakington, Cambridge, CB4 5BA, England
Phone: +44 1223 237700 
Fax: +44 1223 235S70
E-mail: chief@internetwatch 

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