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In Net Attitude, I wrote quite a bit about the importance of talking to teenagers. They hold many of the clues as to what the Future of the Internet will be like. The kids totally get the Internet and studies have now proven what may be the obvious — nearly 90% of teenagers in America (and a growing percentage around the world) use the Internet as their preferred way to communicate. Email is prevalent, of course, but instant messaging is more the modus operand as I described in my book.

There is another dimension of kids and the Internet that is quite important. In addition to the conversations they are having, what is the content they are looking at? This is a great concern to many parents and teachers. Some have called for legislation and regulation. Whatever a person’s view about censorship may be, the vastness of the Internet and available content makes regulatory approaches impractical. There are basically two approaches to the issue. First is to look over the kids shoulders once in a while. Ask them what they are looking at. Talk to them about their values. Let them know you care. Ask them about their favorite web sites. Parent and teacher involvement is a very big factor.

There is also a technology approach that has great promise and is already having an impact. It is called PICS — the Platform for Internet Content Selection. PICS is based on work done by IBM Research, Microsoft, and other companies. It has been endorsed as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT. Much like movies have ratings, web content can now have ratings. The PICS protocol, however, has much more granularity. Ratings have been established for sex, nudity, language, and violence. Each of these characteristics can have varying degrees of intensity. Parents and teachers can then make settings in the browser for the levels of each of the areas that each child is permitted to see.

The Internet Content Rating Association is a prime example of the use of the PICS standard to create an internationally acceptable labeling and filtering system widely in use on the web today. ICRA, created in 1999 as a non-profit organization, was formed when the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) folded into the new, international body. With a membership of over twenty top IT and telecommunications companies, including IBM, Microsoft and AOL, ICRA launched a revised rating questionnaire on their site www.icra.org in December 2000. This highly acclaimed rating syntax has been taken up by over 50,000 sites world-wide including the top three sites in the world, Yahoo!, MSN and AOL which account for 50% of US traffic.

ICRA will be launching a free, downloadable, software device called ICRAfilter in March 2002 which will read the new ICRA meta-tags and allow parents and other concerned adults to filter out sites they don’t want their kids to see. And, for the first time, allow the easy inclusion of block and allow lists from trusted third parties. It is hoped that the major browser makers and operating systems will also incorporate the ICRAfilter functions to make the system easy to find and easy to use. And there is considerable interest from other digital media in porting their labels onto the internet.

Labeling with ICRA is free and takes on average only five minutes to complete the online questionnaire. The webmaster then copies and pastes the PICS meta-tag in the header of their home page and this is read by the filtering device used by the parent – either in the two major browsers (who still support the old RSACi system) or within the soon-to-be released ICRAfilter. Categories include sexual content, violence, language, chat and other potentially harmful content. For the first time, context variables help to distinguish material that is deemed to be educational, medical or artistic and suitable for young children.

Update Mar. 15, 2013 – ICRA tools and webmaster support are no longer available