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ICRA Launches New System to Make the Internet Safer for Children


A significant new development in the effort to protect children online, while respecting the free speech rights of content providers, is being unveiled today by the Internet Content Rating Association [ICRA], an independent, non-profit organisation, based in Europe and North America.

The new content labelling system, which can be found at, is the culmination of a year's consultation exercise to create an internationally acceptable rating system which could be adapted to different national, cultural and individual needs. The second part of the system, a filter that allows parents to set their own controls, will be launched mid 2001.

"A significant inhibitor to the growth of the Internet is parental concern about unsuitable material," says Stephen Balkam, Executive director of ICRA. "Parents in particular are concerned about what their children will see and experience on the web. We are confident that the new ICRA system will give parents a useful tool to help them to overcome their concerns without interfering with freedom of expression."

ICRA has evolved from the US-based Recreational Software Advisory Council Internet rating system [RSACi]. RSACi was developed in the US in 1996 with only four categories - nudity, sex, language and violence. ICRA is a global system with more categories of concern, including the promotion of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and weapons. All of the descriptions against which sites are rated are neutral. Context variables are included for the first time to distinguish sites that have educational, artistic or medical content and there is a new category to deal with chat rooms.

ICRA is supported by a board whose membership reads like a 'who's who' of some of the world's leading Internet and communication companies including AOL, Bell Canada, British Telecom, Cable & Wireless, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, ONdigital and The Bertelsmann Foundation. Each provides first class expertise and experience in Internet service, content provision, telecommunications and browser technology fields. This co-operation between competitors reflects the Industry's concerns about responsible Internet development and its recognition that only by working together can they provide the reassurance needed to make the Internet a vital tool, accessible to everyone.

A recent court case where paedophile, Patrick Green, used the anonymity of the Internet to lure a minor into his home, highlighted the vulnerability of children to not only direct contact from dangerous elements such as Green, but also to Internet sites that subject children to harrowing images and messages of pornography, violence and hatred.

ICRA uses PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which enables labels (metadata) to be associated with Internet content. It was originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet.

To label a site the content provider completes a questionnaire at the ICRA website - From there the ICRA labelling engine creates an appropriately formatted label following the PICS standard that contains details of the website being labelled. This is then presented to the provider on screen and via e-mail.

This label is then pasted in to the head of the web page and transmitted with every serving of that particular page. The system allows for the labelling of a single page, a directory or an entire site with a single label saving the content provider from having to paste the label in to every single page. Web pages carrying content labels of this sort can be read and interpreted by applications on PCs and desktops that provide a level of filtering based on the content of the label found. Current examples of these applications are Microsoft's Internet Explorer Content Advisor and Netscape's NetWatch. This means that almost everyone with a PC already has the tools to read the ICRA labels without any further applications or cost.

The actual engine is hosted by Cable & Wireless in their state of the art Network Operations Centre in Swindon, UK and enjoys unparalleled connectivity to the Internet.

Concludes Sheridan Scott, ICRA chair and Chief regulatory officer, Bell Canada:

"ICRA is committed to providing a system that is objective. We do not operate with any censorial or moral agenda. We simply want to provide a means for parents and other responsible adults to be able to choose what their charges view. Only by providing systems like this that help reassure parents that the Internet can be a safe learning and communication tool can it reach its full potential for everyone."

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