WASHINGTON — A coalition of technology and media companies, hoping to calm jittery parents and appease disgruntled lawmakers, agreed Monday to devise a system of filters that would help families shield children from adult material on the Internet.
The participants, including Walt Disney Co., America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp., hope that their effort to develop a private-sector solution will head off potential government intervention in the booming online marketplace.
During three days of meetings that began in Washington on Monday, the firms will seek to call public attention to existing software products that enable parents to screen the kind of World Wide Web sites their children can view. And at a kickoff session, they promised to deliver new means of blocking children's access to inappropriate material.
But participants remained far from agreement on what the system they propose will look like, and expressed doubts that there will ever be anything like an industry standard. They said the complexities of the issue will probably result in a fragmented system of checks and filters that will leave a great deal of choice--and responsibility--in the hands of parents.
"We're not trying to impose anything on anybody. We're just trying to empower parents," said Steve Case, chief executive of the industry giant American Online. "Ultimately, parents should decide for themselves what's appropriate for their children."
This week's meeting comes five months after the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which would have barred the display of indecent material on the Internet, saying it violated the free-speech rights of adults. While many Internet service providers joined civil-liberties activists in cheering that decision, they acknowledged Monday that it has left many parents leery of inviting the Internet into their homes. That, they fear, threatens to limit the growth of the market for Internet services.
"Parents have a legitimate concern about how to manage their kids' Internet experiences," said Jake Winebaum, president of Disney Online. "Until those concerns are overcome with solid working solutions, the medium will not be able to realize its potential."
Last week, Disney Online unveiled a system to let parents dictate the breadth of their children's access when registering them for special Disney Internet service. In the spring, Disney expects to launch a "D-Guide," a search and directory tool that will direct subscribing children to kid-appropriate Web sites.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that works to protect computer users' civil liberties, says all major providers of Internet access offer screening technology free or at a nominal cost. Those providers, serving 14 million households, include AOL, AT&T WorldNet, CompuServe, Prodigy and Erol's.
But while the industry is eager to show it already has responded to parents' concerns, there was uneven support for the kind of industrywide standard President Clinton suggested when he convened the Internet Online Summit. After June's Supreme Court decision, Clinton suggested that Internet providers should devise some standard set of rules and voluntarily adhere to them, much as the major television networks have done in adopting a ratings system for use with a V-chip. A computer chip expected to be included in new TV sets next year, the V-chip will allow parents to block programs.
Otherwise, Clinton administration officials warned, Internet service providers could count on angry lawmakers to step in.
Clinton welcomed the industry's efforts Monday but stopped short of endorsing them. "I hope it works. I encouraged them to do it, and I'm glad they're doing it."
With a subscriber base of 10 million, America Online appears to have taken the position that companies should offer consumers an array of products--using a variety of standards--and let parents decide which products to use.
"I don't think it'll be the kind of monolithic solution like the V-chip," Case said in an interview. "I don't think there'll be one single rating system. I think there'll be many."
Not surprisingly, a representative of Microsoft Corp. also said Monday the software giant "would like to see a number of rating systems emerge."
By contrast, officials at Disney Online, which has a much smaller subscribership, backed an industrywide standard.
"It needs to be ideally an industrywide initiative," said Winebaum. "Unless you have a rating system that has that breadth, you will not be able to deliver a satisfactory experience."