Clinton calls for Internet content ratings

WASHINGTON — President Clinton cheered technology that helps steer children away from online smut Wednesday while challenging the computer industry to devise a labeling system to further flag lewdness on the Internet.

“The Internet community must work to make these labels as common as food safety labels are today,” Clinton said.

No final industrywide voluntary plan was announced Wednesday, but a top-level meeting involving industry leaders is expected this fall.

The president said he was pleased by a decision by Netscape Communications, provider of a popular Internet browser, to begin using technology that allows parents to rate World Wide Web sites according to their content and block those they consider inappropriate. Microsoft’s Explorer browser already uses the technology.

Clinton was spurred in part by a Supreme Court decision last month that struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which sought to unplug children’s access to inappropriate materials in cyberspace. The court said the law improperly restricted the free-speech rights of adults.

After a meeting with industry officials and others, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore said they were satisfied that the industry is committed to making the Internet family-friendly without impinging on free-speech rights.

Civil libertarians, however, said the plans for a voluntary online rating system seem forced.

“This is a major burden on free speech on the Net,”‘ said Don Haines, legislative counsel on privacy and cyberspace for the American Civil Liberties Union. “We want to cooperate with any voluntary system, but the large question is whether this is voluntary.”‘

Parents groups cheered the industry’s decision to offer a voluntary system, but would not rule out other steps if they are dissatisfied with what the industry offers. “If for some reason we cannot find common ground, we will reluctantly turn to other areas for action, including Congress,” said Lois Jean White, president of the National Parent Teachers Assn.

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