UK Official Pushes Hollywood-Style Ratings for Web Sites

Ever since she found out her niece was reading her Web site, Jen Singer began making sure the majority of her content was G-rated — appropriate for a general audience.

“Even though MommaSaid.net is a Web site for mothers, it appears that it’s popular with quite a few tween girls, too,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “Besides, some moms read and watch videos with a kid or two in their laps, and I don’t want to make their lives any more complicated than they already are.”

Now almost all of Singer’s posts are G-rated. Content that calls for a higher rating is labeled as such. Her news blog, for instance, MommaHeard, is rated PG-13, analogous to the Motion Picture Association of America’s warning “parents strongly cautioned.”

Singer is not alone in her attempts to keep the Web clean. Besides myriad child-protection initiatives undertaken by various special-interest groups, there are periodically calls for content providers to clearly label their sites as child-appropriate. A variation on this theme — rating Web sites with movie-style rankings such as R or PG — appears to be on the horizon.

A Joint Endeavor

Recently, Britain’s Culture Secretary Andy Burnham told the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph that the government was planning to negotiate with the administration of President-elect Barack Obama to develop international rules for these sites.

One possibility, he suggested, was giving Web sites film-style ratings.

Not surprisingly, given the fierce emotions that attach to anything that even hints at censorship, there is an online contingent that is fiercely opposed to the proposal. Others like it but wonder how it could be enforced and monitored.

Others are warm to the concept but are suggesting tweaks to what is currently on the table.

A rating system like the one being suggested should focus on individual pieces of content, rather than the site itself, to allow the content submitters to do the rating “heavy lifting,” thus creating a scalable UGC (user generated content) rating system, Joel Smernoff, president of Paltalk, told the E-Commerce Times.

Ongoing Practice

As this debate gets under way, people might want to consider the fact that Web sites have been de facto rated, usually via a filtering system, Derek Manky, project manager for cyber security & threat research at Fortinet, told the E-Commerce Times.

“We rate approximately 1 million Web sites per week and categorize them into 78 categories. These categories are then grouped, giving flexibility to an administrator.

“While we don’t have strict ‘PG,’ ‘R’ ratings, we do have categories for ‘Adult Material,’ etc., which would be synonymous to an ‘R’ rating.”

This has proven to be a very effective model, Manky said. “Web site content is something that is subject to a viewer audience and should certainly be controlled for the end user depending on their administrator or environment. This can be anything from your child at home, employees at a large corporation or government.”

‘Terrible Idea’

None of that holds water with Ezra J. Doner, a Herrick, Feinstein attorney whose practice focuses on all aspects of the business of film. Earlier in his career, Doner was a film industry executive. The proposal to rate Web sites for content “is a terrible idea,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“An evolving medium like a Web site doesn’t lend itself to a rating system, whereas a fixed piece of work can,” Doner said. “If there were to be a content rating system for Web sites, an objective system that summarizes content details would be far preferable than a ‘letter-rating’ system like that used in the film business (G, PG, PG-13 and R), which is inherently subjective.”

If a parent wants to guard against images of nudity, sex or violence, an objective note stating that the Web site contains such images and describing the context in which the images are used — as part of a news report, for example, or as a collection of images supported by ads featuring sex products or services — would be more helpful, he said.

Also, a shortfall in the film rating system could be equally faulty if applied to Web sites, Doner said. “Few people want a ‘G’ rating or an ‘NC-17’ rating, because that limits how you market your film and with an ‘NC-17’ rating, you may have problems advertising your film in media outlets. So the ‘letter-rating’ system pushes producers to the middle, especially to PG-13. On the Web, a subjective rating system could allow people to game the system or even game their competitors. Any system is open to abuse, and you’d have to think about the competitive factors and openness and transparency in the process.”

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