August 29, 1997 10:25 AM PDT

News rating proposal rejected

A prominent group of online news companies said they will not rate or apply a "news" label to their Web content to bypass software that censors violent or sexual Net sites.

During a closed meeting organized by the Internet Content Coalition in New York yesterday, news organizations debated how to publish on the Net without being filtered by ratings systems or blocking software. Both technologies have gained new popularity upon the death of the Communications Decency Act.

"I think there are two problems with the idea of a 'news' label. One approach was that it would be totally voluntary and self-descriptive, but I think in the end that's not of much value for people who want to screen out certain content," said Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition.

To make the "N" label more meaningful, some worried that the ICC would draft standards to define "news" on the Net and challenge those who "misused" the label.

"The news organizations who were there wouldn't stand for having a body decide what was 'news' on the Net," added Budde.

The ICC is made up of entertainment, technology, and news companies. Those who signed the agreement yesterday were not all members of the ICC but were invited to debate the issue. Still, there are ICC members who still support the idea of rating content, such as Disney and Sony.

CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM) is also a member of the ICC. CNET's editor in chief Chris Barr, who sits on the ICC's board of directors, did not sign the agreement as he was unable to attend the meeting in New York. In a recent column for CNET.COM, Barr advocated setting separate criteria for rating news sites. Prior to the ICC meeting this week, Barr told NEWS.COM: "We [the ICC] are trying to clarify our position on the news label."

Some ICC members already agreed in the past is that they wouldn't rate their sites under the current systems, such as one by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSACi), which lets content providers self-label their sites' pages on a scale of one to ten for nudity, sex, or foul language. As with TV ratings, the idea of reviewing and rating every news story on a site was rejected by most.

In July, Maria Wilhelm, cofounder of the ICC and president of The WELL, met with a small group of White House policy advisers, RSACi, and others during President Clinton's "technology empowerment" day. She gave the advisers a list of ICC members who said they would not rate content and who had agreed to explore alternatives to current ratings systems, including use of the "N" label.

The question at this week's meeting was whether publishers would agree to put "N" labels on their sites. Browsers such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer can read the ratings and block material based on a user's settings, but under these systems news stories can be banned using even the lowest settings. The "N" label would eliminate that situation by making news sites a separate category that surfers could accept or prohibit altogether.

RSACi ratings support the "N" label, and some news organizations who weren't at the meeting may still choose to use it based on self-definition.

Those who signed the agreement include the Journal Interactive Edition, MSNBC, CNN Interactive, New York Times, Time Incorporated, ABCNews, Reuters New Media, the Associated Press, BusinessWeek, Houston Chronicle, Times Mirror, Nando.net, the Magazine Publishers of America, and the National Newspaper Association.

 

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