The Home Office has caused a stir among the Internet industry for quietly adopting the Internet Content Rating Association's (ICRA) labelling system for its Web site in the run up to the General Election.
The Home Office has made no announcement about its decision to support the self-regulatory ICRA scheme. Members of Parliament had praised the rating system at its launch in December, but the government had made no statement about whether it would adopt the scheme itself.
The ICRA filtering categories are broadly covered within four topics: chat, the language used on the site, the nudity and sexual content of the site, violent content, and other inappropriate material such as drugs and alcohol.
"I thought it was odd for a government department to be rating its system in this way," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties. "Can this be regarded as a direct promotion of rating technologies by the Home Office or does the Home Office Web site carry 'Bare buttocks', 'Obscured or implied sexual acts,' 'Blood and gore, fantasy characters' or 'Explicit sexual language'" he said, referring to ICRA definitions.
But David Kerr, vice chairman of the ICRA board, said the rating system depends on users setting up their browsers to only accept labelled sites. "If lots of good sites aren't labelled, it makes the system less attractive -- the more harmless sites that rate themselves the better."
The Home Office has endorsed the ICRA system in the Internet Crime Forum report Chat Wise, Street Wise, and the new taskforce led by Home Office minister Lord Bassam has included it in its recommendations for improving child safety online. "A key government department applying the system is a positive signal of real support," said Kerr.
The next taskforce meeting is scheduled for July, and Peter Sommer research fellow at the London School of Economics believes the Home Office may be leaping ahead of its recommendations by implementing the ICRA system now. "Very little is being done by ministers other than thinking of initiatives that will look good in an election campaign -- it would have been unfortunate if the Home Office hadn't made any plans of its own to implement taskforce recommendations."
Kerr also feels that the Home Office's quiet take-up of the system now will prevent the ICRA scheme from being flagged too heavily as the only means of protecting children on the Web.
For the government, a self-regulating mechanism for rating Internet content is more desirable than passing costly legislation that is likely to provoke privacy and censorship concerns. "Presumably for the Home Office rating its site is a low cost way of recognising the value of modest self-regulation as opposed to passing over-widely drawn law enforcement measures," said Sommer.
The ICRA rating system complies with the Platform for Internet Content Selection standard but has been slow to take-off, with only 120,000 sites so far adopting it, according to the company's own figures. "The ICRA system is falling behind in terms of the proportion of total Internet content that it is hitting," admitted Kerr.
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