Liberty groups blast Net ratings proposal

Internet community races to head off government content regulation, but faces opposition of its own.

Censorship on the Net takes centre stage at an international conference Thursday and has already drawn fire from free-speech campaigners.

The International Net community meets Thursday through Saturday at the Internet Content Summit in Munich to discuss rating schemes for Net content. Advocates of content rating are hoping a global framework for filtering out pornography, hate sites and other online material will be adopted as an alternative to government regulation.

The rating scheme all eyes will be on is the brainchild of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a society think-tank based in Germany. The Global Internet Liberty Campaign has serious concerns the proposed system would damage the freedom of the Net. "Contrary to their original intent, such systems may actually facilitate governmental restrictions on Internet expression," the group writes in a statement.

UK-based Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties is among those critical of regulating content on the Internet. Nicholas Bohm, e-commerce adviser for Cyber-Rights, believes industry self-regulation is playing into the hands of government. "There is a danger that governments will leap on such schemes with joy, remove it from individual control and oblige blocking," he said.

He is concerned rating schemes will not be able to take account of cultural differences and end up blocking material arbitrarily. Bohm gives an example: "A Web site criticising Emperor Hirohito could be considered offensive to Japanese citizens but not necessarily to all countries," he said, but users might have no control over what sites would be blocked. Describing the control individual users will have as "blind control", Bohm is concerned this will lead to what he describes as "a bland global Internet".

According to the director of media policy at the Bertelsmann Foundation, Dr Marcel Machill, critics of the scheme are missing the point. "When we worked out this system we made sure we integrated the viewpoints of civil liberty groups," he said. "Our system is quite the opposite of censorship as it empowers users and gives them the tools to control what they view on the Internet."

A Bertlesmann Foundation survey conducted in Germany, the US and Australia found that a large majority objected to racist and pornographic material on the Net, especially for their children. Seventy-nine percent of Germans, 63 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Australians vehemently opposed racist content, for example. The study found that sensitivities were partly dependent on culture. Americans were more likely to be offended by nudity than Germans, while Germans wanted to avoid radical political Web sites.

Machill explains how the system will work. "Content providers will rate their own Web sites and there will be no third party acting as a censor. These ratings can be read by filtering software on individual browsers," he said. He claims there will be plenty of scope for cultural differences built into the rating scheme.

The software will be available in the summer of next year and it is hoped it will be adopted by members of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), whose members includes Microsoft, BT, AOL and IBM.