Internet could get cinema-style X-ratings in purge on porn

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The Independent Online
British experts will next week propose cinema-style ratings for Internet sites to a meeting of European ministers, with the backing of the US and Australia.

The move is part of an attempt to censor the level of sexual and violent content that would be available to children over the sprawling global network - though opponents say it could instead lead to the widespread curbs on free expression.

However, David Kerr, chief executive of the privately-funded Internet Watch Foundation, which since December has acted as a clearing-house for reports of obscene material in Britain on the network, is confident that his group has devised an effective form. "The case for ratings is a very strong one, in that it doesn't block anybody's right to speak," he said yesterday.

He will address ministers next Monday in Bonn at the "Global Information Networks" conference. He expects them to "endorse and move forward" the proposals, which are being developed with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and RSAC, a commercially-owned US group.

Mr Kerr is also planning to meet ministers at the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Malcolm Hetty, of the Campaign against Internet Censorship in Britain, pointed out that ratings systems can lead to bizarre contradictions: for example, they might prevent children reading a fictional story in which a boxer bites off an opponent's ear, and yet "news" sites could show video clips and reports of Mike Tyson doing just that to Evander Holyfield. "It would rate as highly offensive in a ratings system, but almost every newspaper has decided it's highly newsworthy and put it on the front page."

A ratings system would generally be used by the creator of a web site to put "labels" visible only to computer software detailing the sexual, violent and other age-related content of a site. Parents could set label- reading software to prevent children viewing sites that were rated as too "adult".

Mr Kerr said the backing of the US and Australia was crucial. "It's not effective to set up a UK system on its own ... but with ABC and RSAC we can get a world approach to ratings."

He admitted that "news" sites could prevent a problem, and added that Internet Watch had already recognised others: "Many Shakespeare plays go beyond the violence and sexual limits you might set. But there's a way of putting in a 'cultural context' bypass."

Very few sites use ratings are present, as one has never needed a licence to write a web site. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of web sites in the UK, but only 1,419 have ratings. Worldwide, only 3,500 are rated, compared to many millions which are not. Mr Kerr said, "Another 150 are rated every day" - but the network's growth means that ratings are falling behind, rather than catching up."

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