Sanitizing The Net for Children

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Facing growing pressure from the White House, Congress and children's advocacy groups to control content on the Internet, a group of software and Internet leaders meeting with President Clinton today agreed to provide ways to voluntarily regulate speech on the Web. Announcing their agreement, President Clinton said the summit yielded a consensus on "how to pave the way to a family-friendly Internet without paving over the constitutional guarantees to free speech and free expression." Steve Case, president of America Online, added that new software programs designed to shield children from sites which could be considered inappropriate would not serve as a "replacement for good parenting, but rather a supplement for it." Microsoft is helping spearhead the effort to restrict access to websites deemed unfit for small children via a default setting in its forthcoming browser update, Internet Explorer 4. That setting would give ready access only to websites that have been rated for acceptable content and would make it difficult to look at websites, even news sites, that were not rated. Netscape said today it will adopt the same standard. While the move to present Internet users with this sanitized default version of the world arises from concerns that children can too easily wander into sites that are inordinately violent or sexual in nature, many questions remain unanswered as to how the ratings would be devised, as well as the grounds on which they might be withdrawn, thus potentially threatening the ability of news organizations to publish, and writers to speak. Critics are already charging that for every 10 Web sites out there, 10 different standards on moral ratings are sure to crop up. The ACLU, which won a seat at the White House meeting at the last possible moment only by fighting for it, argues that filtering software may block constitutionally protected forms of speech which are not necessarily sexually explicit. Indeed, under the ratings system being discussed, even a mainstream news publisher's account of a grisly massacre or a sexual crime could potentially lose that publisher its rating -- and much of its business. Whatever comes out of the summit, Congress is not expected to be satisfied with industry efforts to control content on the Internet. The Senate, for example, will soon take up a bill called the Childsafe Internet Act.