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Companies to Devise Internet Filter System to Help Families

By Melissa Healy
Los Angeles Times
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 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 Monday, the companies 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 kick-off 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 likely will result in a fragmented system of checks and filters that will leave a great deal of choice - and responsibility - in the hands of parents.

This week's meeting comes five months after the U.S. 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.

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 last 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 unwanted programs.

Otherwise, Clinton administration officials warned, Internet service providers could count on angry lawmakers to step in with ideas of their own.