US considers rating office for sex sites

In the US, a federal panel examines how to protect youngsters from online pornography. Is a government rating office the answer?

Librarian Jean Armour Polly was able to find what she wanted when searching for filtering software to put on her school's computers. But she never found what she really needed.

There were hundreds of different types of software she could use to block sexually explicit Web pages from her students. But every product review seemed biased or based on anecdotal evidence.

Wouldn't it be great, Polly thought, if there were a central -- perhaps government-operated -- testing laboratory that could review software for educators and librarians.

Now, her idea may be making its way towards Capitol Hill. Thursday, at the final of several field hearings by the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) commission, panelists say they would likely include Polly's idea in a report they are preparing for Congress.

"I'm literally going to start writing my report tonight," said Stephen Balkam, a COPA commissioner and executive director of the Internet Content Rating Association. "This is one idea I'd like to drive through the process."

The idea is to create a testing laboratory that would be equally funded by industry, government and academia. It would be like a super Consumer Reports for filtering software and perhaps expanded to other types of programming. Some software company executives testifying Thursday said they'd welcome an independent testing laboratory.

Most of these companies rely on customer feedback and beta testing to help hone their products. Others say they have internal testing and rating systems but would relish the chance for an outside review.

There are already some privately funded Web sites that conduct such tests. Peacefire.com, headed by Bennett Haselton, is one of them. Invited to testify Thursday, Haselton came armed with two reports about tests that Peacefire had conducted on two filtering software applications.

One company's product blocked from view a Web page on China's response to the growing AIDS crisis and another page listing dietary information for blood-borne diseases, he told the commission.

"Industry doesn't really want to hear about our reports," he testified to the COPA commission today.

Kevin Blakeman of Surf Control, which provides filters for Web hosts and Internet service providers, agreed with the need for a central review lab, but raised a question COPA commissioners weren't prepared to answer.

"How, exactly, would you conduct the tests, especially knowing that there are nearly two billion Web pages available now?" Blakeman asked. "What would you do? Choose 100 Web sites at random and feed them through the software and see what comes out the other end?"

The job becomes even more complicated when filtering software is applied to material from countries outside the United States, where different cultural standards and mores may prevail. "How would you, for instance, grade a Danish site?" Blakeman asked.

Catherine Davis, producer and managing editor of Yahoo!'s Yahooligans, said some form of government-industry commission could augment the sparse funding at colleges for graduate students who want to research Web content filtering.

"I think it's an excellent idea," she said.

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