Web Child-Safety Group: Internet More Dangerous Than Ever

The explosion of social-networking sites such as MySpace.com and Second Life, along with free video sharing sites like YouTube.com, is making it increasingly difficult to protect children surfing the Internet, says Stephen Balkam, who founded a voluntary Web site rating system seven years ago.

To deal with this new Web terrain, Balkam relaunched his group Tuesday as the Family Online Safety Institute, with a broader mission of improving online child safety and protecting free speech through public policy, education and events.

The institute, originally called the Internet Content Rating Association, or ICRA, was originally formed to promote voluntary self-labeling through a rating system.

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Industry is becoming more involved in this effort, Balkam said. He expects the institute's budget to double to $1 million in one year. It has 15 full and supporting members, including AOL Europe, AT&T Inc. (T), Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)

Larry Magid, author of "Child Safety on the Information Highway," said the online safety rules just don't apply anymore.

"It's not just about, 'Let's protect kids from inappropriate content being produced by adults.' That's still there," Magid, founder of SafeKids.com and co-director of BlogSafety.com, said. "But there's so much more. There's kids producing material. There are children producing their own pornography."

Balkam, who is the institute's chief executive, said more than 200,000 sites have voluntary registered with ICRA and about 70 percent have no nudity, sex, language or violence. But he acknowledges there's a long way to go, considering there are more than 100 million Web sites.

"We don't believe labeling is some kind of silver bullet," Balkam said. "Labeling is one tool in a range of tools that's going to be needed to tackle this problem."

Nancy E. Willard, who directs the Portland, Ore.-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said that blocking technology is largely useless because kids and teens can find a way around them.

"What we are doing is evaluating what exists right now," Balkam said. "We'd love to see some government-funded research on what works and what doesn't work."

Balkam, who is the institute's chief executive officer, said his group will host a series of round-table discussions involving educators, lawmakers and corporate executives in the United States, Mexico and Europe.

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