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Uniform Net Rules Ruled Out Social, Legal Differences Prevent That, Experts Say

James Kinsella, general manager of MSNBC, has a question: What’s the difference between his Internet news site and “babes&;”?

The answer, an obviously annoyed Kinsella said Wednesday, is that some Internet screening software blocks access to his site, while babes&dudes; gets the OK.

How much - if any - regulation of the Internet and its content is needed was a much-visited topic as a two-day conference by the Internet Law and Policy Forum opened here.

The fact that software designed to guard against access to World Wide Web sites containing adult themes or violent content could screen out MSNBC, a joint internet-TV news venture by NBC News and Microsoft Corp., makes clear that in the vast, freewheeling world of the Internet, one size, or one policy, won’t fit all, Kinsella and others said.

Sometimes, the news includes stories or pictures about violent acts and sometimes it has stories about the human body, Kinsella said.

Once, MSNBC’s Web site was blocked because it had a story about breast cancer - “breast” being a no-no in some software programs’ vocabularies, he said.

“I run a news site. I don’t run a pornography site,” Kinsella said.

The conference by the 2-year-old forum was called to tackle some of the stickier issues of life and business on the Net, including censorship, privacy, regulation and just keeping up with a medium that’s changing at a meteoric pace. The organization is funded by about 25 companies around the world with stakes in the Internet, including Microsoft, America Online, AT&T;, IBM, British Telecom, Netscape Communications, MasterCard and Visa.

While many individual nations and their respective Internet industries have made strides in fighting fraud, smut and other objectionable content and activities on the Net, there’s no global consensus on Internet policy and there may never be, conference speakers said.

Because different countries have different laws and different cultures, a regulation that might be important in one nation could be objectionable in another.

“The First Amendment is a very unique treasure of the U.S., but it doesn’t exist in the rest of the world,” said Patrick Vittet-Philippe, an advisor to the European Union on Internet content.

Cultural differences mean that Internet users in Islamic countries might be offended by images of women in Western dress, while viewers in the United States might object to sexual images acceptable in other countries.

“As for any of us trying to decide what is appropriate for other cultures, that is a show-stopper,” said Don Sanford, president of Net Shepherd, a Canadian company that makes software to rate Internet sites.

The conference heard reports on a variety of technologies to self-regulate Internet content, including Web-site rating systems, corporate network monitors and screening programs.

But Jim Miller of the World Wide Web Consortium cautioned that Internet users should have the ultimate say on what they can view on the Net.

“Don’t look to technology to solve these types of societal problems,” he said.


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