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A new rating system for Web sites, designed to protect kids surfing the Net and their nervous parents, was unveiled yesterday.

It's been a long time coming: The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA)has worked on a labelling system since 1994. It proposes a voluntary code of practice where sites register at the ICRA.org site and rate their own content.

To get a label for the site, the content provider just has to complete a questionnaire at ICRA.org, and the ICRA labelling engine takes it from there. AOL, for example, has already got a label.

Stephen Balkam, director of the ICRA, says that site will want to sign up for serveral reasons: "Firstly, within both IE and Navigator the parental controls have the option to block unrated sites, so if a site is entirely traffic-dependent, it makes sense for them to sign up."

Doesn't sound too voluntary, does it?

The US Recreational Software Advisory Council has a similar system, developed in 1996, with four categories: nudity, sex, language and violence. The system proposed by the ICRA also addresses issues like promotion of alcohol, drugs or tobacco. There is also a new category to deal with chat rooms.

This is all well and good in theory, but if you are relying on sites to sign up out of concern for the moral fortitude of a generation, you will probably be disappointed. We can't see hardcore porn sites rushing to the ICRA page to get a rating label, for example.

We're wrong, Balkan says. "Adult sites are actually very keen to protect themselves from looking like they are promoting stuff that is harmful to kids, plus kids take up loads of bandwidth and don't have money to spend, so the adult sites don't really want them there."

And sites which refuse to play ball? Well...some search engine firms are mulling whether to search rated sites only, so those who don't get on board will lose traffic, Balkan says. But what could those search engines be? AltaVista and some other major search engine firms actively pimp for pornmongers. They ain't going to stop now, not while there's money in it.

The rating system can be found here, along with the second part of the plan, a Web filter, which should be launching in mid-2001.

ICRA, an independent body, is supported by the Internet great and good companies on both sides of the Atlantic - which should make its task easier to get its rating system accepted. ICRA members include AOL, Microsoft, Novell, EuroISPA, Thus, UUNet and T-Online.

The organisation is targeting the top 1000 sites online, said to account for 80 per cent of Internet traffic. ®

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