The Internet Content Rating Association, the ICRA, today launched its internet filter system, giving parents the power to protect their children on the web.

Launched in the USA earlier this month, ICRA filter is a global labelling system which blocks children from viewing sites that parents deem unsuitable.

The ICRA is an independent body that counts companies such as BT, IBM, the Internet Watch Foundation, AOL, Cable & Wireless and Microsoft as members.

"It is important to state that no organisation can guarantee a 100 percent safe surfing experience," said Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the ICRA. "We are the first modular approach to internet filtering based on participation by everyone, content providers, template creators and concerned adults."

The system works in roughly the same way as film ratings — content providers rate their sites according to a strict list and digitally label their sites. Web browsers can then be set by parents, for example, to disallow the viewing by children of unsuitable content.

A key characteristic of the filter is choice and not control. ICRA does not choose what children should be watching — that's solely the job of the parent.

"The role of the parent is vital to these schemes," said Sheridan Scott, chief executive of telco Bell Canada, host of today's launch.

The filter is free from the ICRA's website. Parents must answer a series of complex questions relating to what material they want their child to view before the filter can be put in place.

Categorised into areas, such as sex, drugs and violence, parents can set different levels of restriction dependent on their beliefs, the child's age etc.

A template option is also available, where other organisations have created their own list of sites which children should not be viewing. Any companies that submit these templates must provide detailed information about themselves and why they have blocked certain areas.

"The key to its success is transparency. Parents can look at the authors, decide whether to trust them based on their values and only then decide whether that template is suitable for their child," said Bell Canada's Scott.

If a company should create an unsuitable list then this will be pulled down and they will be in legal breach of their agreement with ICRA.

"Most companies which provide adult content don't want children on their site anyway. Not only are they missing out on possible sales they are leaving themselves open to unnecessary litigation," said Scott.

But for the scheme to work it is essential that the majority of websites are tagged.

So far 50,000 companies have already tagged their website, with Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL having agreed to also join the scheme.

"We need to get the top 100," said Scott. "The top 100 adult sites, the top 100 children's sites, the top 100 most visited sites. Only then can we create a really safe environment for our children."