What's in it? Read the label

George Cole on a new rating system for the World Wide Web
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Whenever we go to see a film or buy a video game, we've got some idea of its content, thanks to the rating systems used by the movie and games industries. But trying to gauge the content of the hundreds of thousands of Internet sites is another story. Now, a new electronic labelling system, due to come into operation this summer, could make it easier for everyone to know what's on the Web.

The Platform for Internet Content Selection (Pics) was formed by MIT's World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) last August. The group consists of 39 hardware and software companies, online providers and media groups, including AOL, AT&T, CompuServe, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, Time-Warner and Viacom.

Pics is not a rating system but a technical standard for labelling Internet sites. The idea is to create a universal labelling system that will be recognised by different hardware systems and software packages. The Pics system has been deliberately left open and flexible. For example, labels can be created when a site is being put together, or added by a third party at a later stage.

The system is also voluntary: "Technology like Pics [means that] the Internet can move towards self-regulation within two years," says Jim Miller, co-chair of Pics. "We predict that 80 per cent of content providers will adopt the Pics standard within that time frame." Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, predicts that within 12 months, most Internet access control systems will be based around Pics technology.

Anything with an Internet address can be labelled. The label could consist of a rating score (for example, "violence score 4"), text description ("strong language"), icon (such as an exclamation mark) or a combination of these. The Pics group says that Net sites could be labelled by the site publisher or a new group of third party labelling services to which users could subscribe.

But the latter move could prove confusing. For example, a site could receive different ratings from different labelling services. However, some companies, including Microsoft and SurfWatch, have adopted a rating system developed by the US-based Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Its system rates a site on its level of sex, nudity, violence and offensive language (vulgar or hate motivated). In an effort to become the de facto Internet rating standard, the RSAC is making no charge during its first year of operation, although Internet users in other countries may prefer a locally based service.

Pics will enable parents to call up a Net site and pull off the labelling information to check the content. Some systems may also allow users to set up their computer so that it can only access "child friendly" sites, for example. A prototype system suggested by the Pics group would even allow parents to use a graphical slider system to set the acceptable sex, violence and language levels. Pics could be also be used by employers: business PCs could be set up to stop employees accessing games or entertainment sites during working hours.

The Pics bandwagon is beginning to roll. Microsoft and Netscape have announced plans to build Pics into future versions of their Web browsers. Internet control software like SurfWatch and Net Nanny will also support the system. CompuServe also plans to make Pics available to its members.