The sprawling growth of the Internet, a place where good, bad, and repulsive sites can sit cheek by jowl, may be under threat from impatient lawmakers in the United States - who, in their desire to "protect children" from unsuitable material, may end up destroying a global information resource.
An international coalition of non-governmental organisations has been trying for months to devise a workable "ratings" system that could be used by parents in a wide range of cultures to prevent their children from accessing unsuitable material on the global network. They met last week for two days to try to thrash out the key issues.
But while the European side of the coalition, represented by the Internet Watch Foundation based in Cambridge, reckons that it will take at least 18 months to develop a workable pairing of a ratings system and software that can interpret it, the US partners and software companies have privately said that they have, at most, nine months before the US demands mandatory ratings legislation.
"We're not all fully in agreement," said David Kerr, the chief executive of Internet Watch. "I said at the meeting that in order to go through the necessary consultation in the various countries, you couldn't achieve it in less than 18 months. But the US side is under a lot of pressure to get it developed as soon as possible."
The ratings would be a two-sided system, in which every site that wanted to would voluntarily compare itself against a set list of criteria, on a scale of 1 to 5, for elements such as the amount of sex, violence, nudity and strong language on the site. Other elements, including "intolerance" - for racial items - and "dangerous activities" including cigarettes and alcohol but also sports and suicide methods, might also be offered.
The site's owner would rate the site against those criteria, and then include that rating on the site. "We want the ratings to be as free of cultural judgement as possible," said Mr Kerr.
At the child's computer, software in the browser would read the ratings and compare it against criteria set by the parents. Alternatively, some companies might develop ready-made "profiles" for parents to use - so that Catholic parents could feel sure their child would not see anything they found offensive.
The self-rating system though has not proved popular. Of the tens of millions of sites on the Web, 45,000 have rated themselves. In January, the figure was 30,000. In the same time, the total number of Web sites is reckoned to have doubled.
Perversely, legislation which insists that every site must be rated for its suitability could bring the rapid growth of the Net to a shuddering halt. It would discourage people from putting new sites up, and might have unpredictable cultural effects. Some sites - such as "news" sites, which are proliferating - are effectively unratable: would a racial war in Ethiopia, or another rail crash, be judged too intolerant or violent?
In the summer, a number of US Internet news sites broke off negotiations with the US side of the coalition on exactly this point. Mr Kerr hopes that some compromise can be reached. The signs though are not promising.
Ready-made solutions are not encouraging either. While there are a number of "filtering" software packages written by American companies, the differences even between US and British cultures means they tend to block access to sites which British schoolchildren could find useful - including many with information about drinking, cigarettes and Aids.
Mr Kerr recognises the problems, but fears that US legislators may prove implacable. "If it doesn't happen in a reasonable period, then the hawks and doves will be back on the legislative path in Washington," he said.Reuse content