'Net Heavyweights to Discuss Self-Regulating Content

A group of prominent politicians and Internet industry heavyweights are meeting at the end of the week here to discuss proposals to help protect minors from harmful online content.

The idea of the summit, which takes place in Munich from September 9 through 11, is partly to preempt government legislation in this area by having industry come up with self-regulatory guidelines.

The summit's organiser, the Bertelsmann Foundation, a subsidiary of German media giant Bertelsmann AG, will present a memorandum on self-regulation of Internet content. The memorandum, which will serve as a draft proposal for self-regulation to be discussed at the summit, is based on findings incorporating input from a network of 25 experts from politics, civil liberties groups, law enforcement, and the Internet industry, according to Marcel Machill, project head at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Attendees of the summit include Esther Dyson, interim chairwoman of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Ira Magaziner, a former policy advisor to the White House, and Otto Schilly, the head of Germany's Interior Ministry.

Many industry insiders feel the move is a step in the right direction. "If you take the initiative, it is likely that you will stop something akin to censorship," said Joe McNamee, spokesman for the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA). "We want to see a system that empowers consumers to see what they want on the Internet, " he said.

EuroISPA, a federation of ISP trade groups from 10 European countries, is also a member of INCORE (Internet Content Rating for Europe), a European Union-funded group which is meeting separately at the summit to discuss its own proposals for an Internet rating system. Also in attendance at the summit will be members of the U.S.-based group called ICRA (Internet Content Rating Association), which is working on its own proposal for an international ratings system.

The idea of a voluntary rating system for Internet content, which will also be part of the Bertelsmann memorandum, is a controversial one. Many privacy groups are vehemently against self-regulation, particularly when it comes to rating Internet content.

"I think it is a most frightening proposal," said Chris Ellison, founder of the UK-based civil liberties group Internet Freedom. "Rating schemes are just a technical fix which allow everyone to become a censor," he said, adding that among those put in that position would be schools, libraries and Internet service providers. The group takes the position that Internet users can decide for themselves what they will or will not look at on the Internet.

Bertelsmann's Machill, however, says the Foundation has spent a year working hard to make sure its proposal balances "freedom of speech and the need to protect children," pointing out that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union were also involved in drafting the memorandum.

The centerpiece of the Bertelsmann Foundation memorandum, Machill said, is a filtering tool designed for parents which, he maintains, will allow flexible filtering of content. "It will be adjustable to different cultural sensibilities or needs of different service providers," he said. Machill declined to give further details ahead of the summit.

Other topics which will be covered at the summit include hotlines, which allow parents to contact law enforcement officials or regulatory bodies; ways which countries can work together; and the results of user surveys conducted in Germany, Australia and the US.

Information on the summit can be found at http://stiftung.bertelsmann.de/internetcontent/.

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