Is Www.Sleaze.Com About To Be Flamed?

Online services want ratings. Free-speech advocates don't

What could be controversial about a White House summit on ways to protect kids from cyberporn? Given the supporters of a safe Internet slated to attend--from Attorney General Janet Reno to execs from Walt Disney, Microsoft, and America Online--you'd think the Dec. 1-3 confab would be a celebration of family values. But it's looking more like a family feud.

Companies can hardly wait to showcase their latest plans for carving out G-rated places in cyberspace. Walt Disney Co., for example, will use the summit to trumpet a new E-mail feature that allows parents to control their children's correspondence online. And summit participants will announce a new "cyber-911" Web site to which incidents of online child predation can be reported.

But such proposals have caused a rift in the coalition of online service companies, content providers, and civil-liberties groups that teamed up to successfully fight the Communications Decency Act. The CDA, which attempted to ban online smut entirely, was struck down by the Supreme Court.

JAWBONING. This time, free-speech advocates, who vehemently oppose ratings, are lining up against the online service providers. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with news organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, accuse America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp., and other online biggies of selling out free speech in their rush to make cyberspace a mass medium. "In an attempt to create a greater market for the Internet, you shouldn't go for the quick and dirty solution," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, a media watchdog group.

Ever since the CDA's defeat, the White House has jawboned the industry--including summit sponsors AOL, Microsoft, Disney, Time Warner, and AT&T--to pursue self-regulation. And some independent ratings agencies have sprung up to help. In October, Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alta Vista search-engine subsidiary announced it would provide the services of Net Shepherd, a for-profit Calgary (Alta.)-based ratings agency. Disney now rates its sites using benchmarks from the nonprofit Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), the leading Net rating agency. Microsoft is using RSAC ratings in its Internet Explorer Web browser, too.

PTA PROJECT. But cyber-libertarians say the industry is rushing to do what they feared would happen under the CDA. "The result [of ratings] will be an Internet that is no longer hospitable to a diversity of viewpoints," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU. Steinhardt will lead an alliance of civil-liberties and journalism groups who oppose ratings at a Dec. 1 countersummit.

The debate over ratings even has some companies at odds with themselves. Time Warner Inc., for example, is officially agnostic on ratings. But Time Inc. New Media voted in August (along with other news organizations, including BUSINESS WEEK) to oppose ratings for news when the issue was put to a vote by the Internet Content Coalition, which represents online- content companies. Meeting participants also voted unanimously against any system where a third-party arbiter would determine what sites constitute news. "It's important for First Amendment companies to be proselytizers to others dancing around the Internet space," says Daniel Okrent, editor of Time Inc. New Media. "There's a real consequence to the quality of journalism if we rate."

Ratings backers say nonprofits such as the Parent-Teacher Assn. could band together to provide this service. The idea: They could comb the Net for sites that meet their standards, then grant them a seal of approval.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are readying their next salvo--legislation introduced by Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) on Nov. 8 to outlaw commercial online content that's "harmful to minors." The online industry and public-interest groups are united against this "Son of CDA." But their fractious infighting could weaken their hand.