INTERNAUT

Federal sites need blocks, tags and filters for child-safe surfing

Shawn P. McCarthy

Visit the Thomas legislative Web server at the Library of Congress, and you'll find no fewer than 45 pieces of legislation with the key words kids, Internet and safety.

Yet the server at thomas.loc.gov is not set up for safe surfing by children.

Ironically, that means users who have turned on the child-safe surfing tools built into the two most common browsers cannot reach the Thomas server, nor can they reach servers at the House of Representatives, the Senate or even the White House.

Some other federal Web sites have gone out of their way to post prominent privacy statements and have configured their servers for equal access for all in the spirit of Section 508 of the 1998 Disabilities Act amendments.

Parental filters reject certain agency sites that deal with illegal drugs or gruesome crimes. But few site managers have made an effort to intelligently protect their underage surfers.

At issue are the filtering tools built into Microsoft Internet Explorer and America Online Inc.'s browser. Netscape Navigator's NetWatch tool filters via the browser, but it relies on a proprietary serverside function that overfilters without letting individual sites effectively set their own ratings.

AOL and Microsoft have plugged into an effort coordinated by the Internet Content Rating Association of Washington. ICRA's filtering process is already built into versions of Internet Explorer newer than 3 years old.

ICRA filtering is simple to turn on. In Internet Explorer, look under the Tools section of the top menu. Choose Internet Options, then select the Content tab within the pop-up box. There you can set the filtering level, up to prohibiting access to any site that's not tagged for safe surfing.

In the AOL browser, choose the parental controls setting.

Frankly, it's the tagging work that holds up ICRA use. Managers must insert a metatag on a page or at the root directory for the ICRA system to work. It's not complex, but it takes time. Few sites other than dedicated kids' gaming and education sites have bothered to install such tags.

That makes for a chicken-and-egg problem. People don't use the filters because few sites have bothered to support them. And sites don't bother with tags because no one seems to use the filtering.

It does work, though. Turn on the filter to see just how well. But ICRA needs a push to make it take off.

The needed catalyst seems to be AOL's parental controls system, which implements ICRA when set to maximum filtering. Families that keep the parental controls on all the time will have trouble reaching untagged sites.

Managers of children's sites who wanted to boost their page views were quick to realize they shouldn't block AOL visitors. So kids' sites have led the way in adopting ICRA tags. And ICRA has been contacting other sites to build awareness.

If the government really cares about promoting safe surfing, it could become a secondary catalyst by implementing such tags on its Web sites.

To learn more about ICRA, visit www.rsac.org. The Microsoft knowledge base at support.microsoft.com/directory is a good place to troubleshoot ICRA problems, but you must look each up separately. There are limited details about implementing tags for foreign languages.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

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