The biggest names in the online world yesterday introduced a large and elaborate World Wide Web site aimed at helping parents guard their kids from the wild side of the Internet. The site, called GetNetWise, is a key part of the industry's efforts to head off government regulation of the global computer network.
It offers Internet safety tips and an exhaustive guide to products and services that families can use to block and filter objectionable material. Visitors can also get information about reporting trouble to law enforcement agencies and can find links to sites deemed kid-friendly.
Built on the philosophy that the best protection is for their parents to get involved in their children's online explorations, the site offers tips for how to draw up an "Internet use agreement" that children would sign to set ground rules for how they would use the network.
Critics immediately faulted the site, saying, among other things, that many of the "filtering" products don't work as advertised. Congress has repeatedly rejected the industry's approach of self-regulation and passed bills to establish criminal penalties for making sexual material available to children online.
The first such law, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was ruled an unconstitutional restriction of free speech by the Supreme Court. A subsequent law is tied up in court.
But the companies sponsoring the new site, which include America Online Inc., AT&T Corp., Microsoft Corp., Walt Disney Co., Excite Inc., Lycos Inc. and Yahoo Inc., say it and other programs will largely solve the problem. The firms often beat one another up in the courtroom, the media and the marketplace, but they all agreed on GetNetWise and have pledged to place its logo prominently on their own sites.
"We don't think there is a requirement at this point for someone to legislate and tell the industry how to handle these issues," said Steve Wadsworth, president of Disney's Buena Vista Internet Group.
By "empowering" parents, Wadsworth said, the site will give them some of the same cues they use to judge other media. Like movie ratings and brand names, he said, tools offered on GetNetWise are "going to provide people with a comfort level" about using the Internet.
Another big supporter of the site is Vice President Gore. "It really is the total digital toolbox," he said via a satellite link-up yesterday at a news conference introducing the site. "By establishing one simple place to block and monitor what children will see, we are giving the computer keyboard back to those who know best -- America's parents."
The site includes a software finder that helps users pore through hundreds of products that attempt to make surfing safe. The user checks off desired features -- say, those that block violent imagery or set time limits on Internet use -- and the software on the site then produces a list of products and services sporting those features, with lengthy descriptions and links to the sites that in many cases allow the products to be downloaded for a free tryout.
Critics of filtering software argue that parents often don't have the skills to install it and that the software can accidentally block inoffensive sites and fail to block offensive ones. Web-savvy teens can figure out ways to defeat the software, they say.
Bennett Haselton, a vocal opponent of filtering software, faulted the site for billing itself as a guide to consumer products. "One of the products on the market blocked Time magazine after Time gave them a bad review," he said, "and if I can't go to this Web site and find out which company did that, then they're not telling the full story."
The site does not refer to third-party reviews of filtering software from organizations such as Consumer Reports and Publisher Ziff-Davis's ZDnet site -- tools that could help consumers avoid clunky and flaky products.
Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington and co-chairman of the GetNetWise effort, said such links would have led some of the potential players to drop out of the project and suggested that reviews are easy to find, as they are highlighted on each company's site.