March 1, 1996
By PETER H. LEWIS
Microsoft Corp., contending that individuals rather than governments should control what people see on the Internet, has endorsed a new voluntary ratings system for information distributed via the World Wide Web and said the company would build a complete information filtering system into the next version of its Internet Explorer software.
In endorsing the ratings system developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council, which was announced Wednesday, Microsoft joined several leading makers of Internet filtering software, including Microsystems Software Inc., the maker of Cyber Patrol, and SurfWatch Software Inc.
The ratings system, called RSAC-I, will enable parents and teachers to block a computer's access to World Wide Web sites on the basis of criteria like violence, sexual themes, nudity or potentially offensive language.
The RSAC-I system is an Internet version of one first developed to provide ratings for video games and computer software, and has been used by retailers like Wal-Mart to help select software to sell in their stores.
Although ratings are voluntary and are assigned by the producers of the software, most software publishers participate in the system because many retailers decline to sell software without ratings.
Microsoft's implementation of the filtering system would give parents the option of blocking access to any Web material without a RSAC-I rating.
The announcements by Microsoft, SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol were seen as the strongest response yet by the Internet software community to recent attempts by federal and state legislators to protect children by regulating the content of the Internet and on-line services.
Microsoft is also one of some 30 businesses and organizations that have joined in lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of the new Communications Decency Act, which places control of Internet content in the hands of the federal government.
Microsoft's announcement on a voluntary Internet ratings system came on the same day that President Clinton met in Washington with broadcasting executives, who agreed to develop a new voluntary television ratings system that will go into effect by the end of this year or early 1997.
The other leading makers of World Wide Web software, Spyglass Inc. and the market leader, Netscape Communications Corp., declined Thursday to commit to supporting the RSAC-I advisory system.
But they strongly reiterated their support, along with Microsoft, for an industrywide standard called the Platform for Internet Content Selection, or PICS, which provides the technical underpinnings for various ratings systems.
Software companies that support the PICS framework will add a button or software menu item to their Internet software products, allowing parents or teachers to choose whichever ratings or filtering system they wish.
On Microsoft's next version of its Internet Explorer software, due to be tested this spring, the RSAC-I system will be but one choice, although it is widely perceived to be one of the most objective and comprehensive ratings systems to adhere to the PICS technical standard.
Stephen Balkam, executive director of the Recreational Software Advisory Council, said the RSAC-I system asked Internet publishers to fill out detailed questionnaires about the amount of sex, nudity, violence and offensive language on their Web sites.
The system allows ratings for individual pages within a Web site.
Each Web page is then assigned a rating label, from 0 to 4, in each of these categories. Parents can then set their Web-browser software to block pages that exceed their tolerance for objectionable material.
Balkam conceded that a Web publisher might lie about the contents of a page, but said the council was developing plans to monitor compliance.
Moreover, the PICS framework allows parents to block any site that is not rated, giving Web publishers an incentive to adhere to a ratings system if they want their pages to be seen in households with children or in schools.
Other organizations or companies are expected to develop their own ratings systems for the PICS platform, allowing parents to make their own viewing choices, or to follow the advice of independent groups like the Boy Scouts, Parents Magazine or Christian Coalition.
"We've been saying all along that it is possible to reconcile free expression of ideas and appropriate protection for kids," said Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that supports the PICS technology. "What's great about PICS is that it allows both goals to be met without sacrificing one for the other."