WASHINGTON (AP) _ Top Internet companies Tuesday announced their support for a Web site rating system to keep children away from Internet pornography and other controversial sites.
The Internet leaders, which include AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft Network, hope that the system will show lawmakers that self-regulation can work, heading off more laws restricting Internet content.
``The overwhelming response demonstrates the value of a voluntary self-labeling system that is about choice _ not censorship _ on the Internet,'' said Mary Lou Kenny, North American director of the Internet Content Rating Association. ``We're looking to get a critical mass in many categories.''
Current filtering programs use secret lists of blocked Web sites. Some lists block sites with political content _ support for gay rights, for example _ and some don't let parents override the settings.
With the ICRA plan, operators would rate their Web sites by filling out an online form listing types of objectionable material, such as drug promotion, gambling or particular forms of nudity.
Using a free filtering program that will be available next spring, parents can block sites featuring any category of material they find objectionable. Parents can still block or allow specific sites, or permit borderline content for medical or educational purposes.
While the three big companies have little controversial content themselves, the widespread acceptance of a filtering system could force smaller sites to rate themselves. The filter, for example, lets parents automatically deny access to any unrated sites.
The industry is getting some governmental support as well. Kenny said five lawmakers have told her they will introduce a bill encouraging legislators to rate their own Web sites. Some British government Web sites also have used the rating system.
Congress and Internet companies have had a rocky relationship over Internet pornography. There have been several laws to regulate explicit content on the Internet, but they have been stalled or overturned in the courts.
Many other solutions have been offered, from making Internet providers liable for illegal pornography that travels through their networks to creating separate kids-only or porn-only areas of the Internet.
Internet companies maintain that technology can prevail and give choice back to parents.
``We believe that good corporate citizenship and tools that help parents make good decisions is a much better alternative than government regulation,'' Kenny said.
Kenny said about 200,000 Web sites are already labeled, including top adult sites like Playboy.com. The Interactive Gaming Council, which represents gambling sites, will encourage its members to get behind the plan as well.
Parents can also download blocked-site lists from groups they trust _ like a list of hate sites from the Anti-Defamation League _ and insert them into the program.
Internet filtering opponent Bennett Haselton said that since the filter is a stand-alone program parents will have to download and install, he doubts many people will use it. A previous set of filtering standards was less specific, but shipped with Internet browsers.
``It's a reincarnation of a system that has been around for years with enormous financial backing, and nobody uses it,'' Haselton said.
Porn opponent Bruce Taylor, a former Justice Department prosecutor, applauded the move but said the industry may have difficulty convincing technophobic parents to use the software.
Previous, simpler versions of the rating system are included in some versions of Microsoft's Web browser, but there are no current plans to bundle the program into Microsoft or AOL software.
``We have to help parents, but parents do need to pay attention,'' Taylor said.