Internet Safety Month, Part 4: Website Labeling and Metadata Tagging

by on June 4, 2007 · 0 comments

This is part 4 or a multi-part series of essays to coincide with “National Internet Safety Month.” Previous installments discussed online safety metasites, filtering and monitoring tools, and operating system and web browser controls. In this installment, I will be discussing the importance of website labeling and metadata tagging.

All the information in this series is condensed from my forthcoming Progress & Freedom Foundation special report, “Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods” which we will be launching on June 20th with an event at the National Press Club.

Many of the parental control tools I discuss in my new book rely on digital labeling schemes and metadata tagging. Metadata are machine-readable digital data that describe audiovisual media content. For example, MPAA movie ratings and ESRB video game ratings are digitally embedded within DVDs and video games so that other parental control tools (i.e., DVD players, computers, video game consoles, etc.) can then be used to screen out unwanted content.

This same approach can work for Internet websites. Machine-readable content descriptors can be embedded within websites or online content to “tag” the sites or material. Once tagged, the sites or content can be automatically screened by other devices (i.e., filters, operating systems, etc.) regardless of how that content is accessed.

The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), which is part of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), is helping to develop improved Internet filtering systems through comprehensive website labeling and metadata tagging. ICRA has created a wide variety of content descriptors that website operators can use to self-label their sites. ICRA does not rate Internet websites or the content itself. It leaves it to the content providers to do that using the ICRA labeling system.

ICRA’s website provides additional detail about how the system works:

The centerpiece of the organization is the descriptive vocabulary, often referred to as “the ICRA questionnaire.” Content providers check which of the elements in the questionnaire are present or absent from their websites. This then generates a small file containing the labels that is then linked to the content on one or more domains…

The descriptive vocabulary was drawn up by an international panel and designed to be as neutral and objective as possible. It was revised in 2005 to enable easier application to a wide range of digital content, not just websites. Most of the items in the questionnaire allow the content provider to declare simply that a particular type of content is present or absent. The subjective decision about whether to allow access to that content is then made by the parent.

Once these metadata labels have been embedded within websites, parents can freely download the ICRAplus filter from ICRA’s website and customize it to their specific needs / tastes. Or they can use unaffiliated filters or computer operating system controls to screen content by ICRA labels.

Other metadata labeling initiatives exist. The Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP), a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 by the adult entertainment industry to eliminate child pornography from the Internet. ASCAP also works to help parents prevent children from viewing age-inappropriate material online through its “Restricted to Adults” (RTA) website metadata labeling initiative. The RTA label is a general descriptor that all adult entertainment website operators are encouraged to use to help parents who wish to block all such content. Incidentally, websites using the RTA metadata tag can use it in conjunction with more descriptive ICRA metadata labels.

Microsoft also has an “Essential Metadata Initiative” that works in conjunction with a wide variety of organizations to develop digital metadata tags for media content. Specifically, Microsoft works closely with the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Standard Audiovisual Number International Agency (ISAN-IA), which operates the International Standard Audiovisual Number (ISAN). ISAN is a widely recognized, global content labeling system for digital audiovisual material.

Although it is generally known as a system to help content creators manage their intellectual property rights, ISAN tags can also be useful in identifying many other attributes of the underlying content in question. Specifically, content rating and labeling information can be embedded within the ISAN tag. Microsoft products such as Vista and Internet Explorer can read ISAN metadata tags and then filter accordingly. And the motion picture industry is using ISAN tags to better identify its content, and rating information from various countries is included in those tags. According to Patrick Attallah, ISAN Managing Director, as of April 2007, the ISAN identification and metadata system supported over 90 different content-specific tags and more than 50 worldwide rating systems in over 35 languages.

[In part 5 of this series, I will discuss search engine filters and kid-friendly web portals.]

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