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Is this the man that will make it safe for kids to surf the Net?

Possibly.

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The issue of making the Internet safe for kids has become a bigger one as the Web becomes ever more ubiquitous. On the one end we have the freedom of speech activists opposed to any control, on the other the Australian government trying to pass a law that makes it illegal to post anything not suitable for a child to view. And in between concerned parents and a whole range of schools, governments and TV presenters.

A number of companies have made big bucks on making filtering software but all have flaws and the fact that are profit-seeking businesses can have detrimental effects (see The Reg's own conflict with SurfPatrol where it banned our entire site because we ran a story about people bypassing its controls).

So we went to see a man who claims to be friend-to-all, master-of-divides and chief peacemaker. That man is Stephen Balkam and he runs the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA). ICRA is an independent, non-profit organisation that is promoting self-regulation on the Net through its voluntary rating system.

Stephen is noticeably very keen to make and reiterate the point that the ICRA believes in protecting kids AND free speech AND is against using legislation to tackle the Net. An impossible dream?

The ICRA dream works like this: Webmasters visit its site. They click on its questionnaire and fill in the details (5-10 minutes to complete). They rate their own content on a scale of zero to four. ICRA then holds this information in its database. It then sends a spider out to test some of the content. You can then proudly display an ICRA logo on your site.

Meanwhile, parents have downloaded its free software (it only works with Explorer or Navigator 4.6 and below). This software refers to the ICRA database when a site is visited and compares the rating with the chosen setting to decide whether to show the site.

ICRA members include AOL, Microsoft, Cable & Wireless, BT, Novell, EuroISPA, Thus, UUNet and T-Online. These companies pay $25,000 a year and get a seat on the board, a high-profile link on the site and something they can harp on about when asked what they're doing to clean up the Net.

We spoke to ICRA in December when it was smaller, and were concerned about its "openness" which blocked any sites which didn't register with ICRA. Not very voluntary, we suggested. Stephen informed us that there is such an option in the software but that the default setting is off.

What of porn sites? Adult sites wish to register, he says, so they get fewer younger readers. Because young children don't spend any money. What of the corporate heavyweights behind the company? It needs them, plus Stephen is keen to list the positive credentials of the people than actually run ICRA.

The software is limited at the moment - you can register individual pages as having stronger content but you will have to enter every page individually. But it is still early days. It is planning a PR campaign to content providers then it will push it to consumers.

Stephen is also unafraid to give his views on the industry and the recent discussions about this topic area. "Parental concerns are stopping the growth of the Internet but trying to control it is no good. We've positioned ourselves as a rational, pragmatic response to the sometimes hysterical reaction to the Internet."

What of various governments' attempt to introduce legislation? "We are against government mandates. We're not anti-government - there are legitimate areas for it to work in like child porn or paedophiles, but the only way to deal with this is through partnership."

What of TV face Carol Vorderman's fury at the Internet industry for not doing enough? "I have some sympathy in her outrage but I ask her to look at the industry's efforts and encourage them rather than damn them. You always need whistleblowers to gain attention, but was she fair? No. Balanced? No. Underneath she had some points though."

And the industry? "Can industry do more? Be more responsible? Yes. It could post far more information. And it could encourage its partners to rate their sites." ®

Related Link

ICRA

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