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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is Cell Phone Censorship Around the Corner?
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Yesterday, I was warning of government threats to regulate your i-Pod and video game platforms. Today I'm going to talk about the looming threat of cell phone censorship.

We live in a multi-media, multi-screen world. That is, video content is no longer the exclusive property of the clunky old living room television set. Today, we can view content on numerous types of devices and screens.

If you want to take a DVD on a long plane ride with you, you grab your portable DVD player and watch it on that screen. Or you just watch the in-flight video on the drop-down screen. You want to watch videos in your car? Generally not a good idea if you're driving, but numerous video devices are on the market for your dashboard (or even your steering wheel) that will allow you to watch TV. And as millions of parents like me can attest, there's no bigger lifesaver on long road trips than a portable (or built-in) DVD player to keep the kids quiet.

Care to watch video anywhere else? Well, with cell phones quickly becoming an all-purpose, "Swiss Army Knife of consumer electronics," you can do it. In today's Wall Street Journal (p. B4), Donna Fuscaldo provides a wonderful overview of all the video services that cell phone providers are currently rolling out to offer on-the-go content along with the other voice and data services we want. She quotes Peter Sharzynski, a senior VP of Samsung, who correctly notes that, "People are looking at entertainment in really broad ways. It's just not going home and sitting in front of your TV. It's TV on the go."

So the mobile network providers are ready to roll this stuff out; now it's up to content providers to deliver content. And they are responding. Fox, for example, recently started developing a cell phone "mobisode" version of their hit drama "24" as well as others. And news programs are next. You can already get a variety of news updates zapped directly to your cell phones or other mobile devices, but it's all fairly low-tech at this stage; mostly just text messages or poor quality, pre-taped video clips. All that will soon change with crisp, live video feeds being beamed directly to your handheld devices.

So, to borrow a wonderful headline that recently appeared in the New York Times, what this all means is that, "Thanks to Cellphones, TV Screens Get Smaller." But as TV screens get smaller it raises a very interesting question: Will traditional TV screen regulations follow? Obviously, our old TV screens are still fairly heavily regulated, both in an economic and content sense. As wireless video becomes more popular, will regulators consider applying the old legacy rules--and indecency regulations in particular--to all our mobile devices?

Well, we didn't have to wait long for an answer. While no one at the FCC is calling for cell phone censorship just yet, you get the hint that they're at least thinking about it. In a February 14th letter to the CTIA (the wireless industry's trade association), John Muleta, Chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau, outlined the agency's concerns about "giving parents access to the tools needed to protect their children from inappropriate content" via wireless devices. Again, to Mr. Muleta's credit, the letter never directly threatens any form of federal regulation should the CTIA and its member companies not take steps to do so. But with letters like this from regulators to trade associations, that's the implicit threat that always hangs in the air.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of more industry self-regulation and parental empowerment tools in particular. With my oldest child learning how to dial grandma and grandpa on my cell phone right now, I am already fearing the day when she learns to how to access more than just family phone numbers. I expect everyone in the wireless industry is keenly aware of this problem and already taking steps to respond to what will be a legitimate market need for filtering tools.

But what happens if lawmakers don't think those tools are good enough? We already know that despite the availability of wonderful channel-by-channel set-top box blocking technologies on digital cable and satellite TV systems, policymakers are preparing to censor "indecent" content on at least the basic tier. And despite having the best voluntary ratings system ever devised for parents, the video game industry has come under constant attack by politicians for supposedly not doing enough for parents.

So, will cell phones be next on the feds' censorship wish list? You better believe it. I'll make a prediction now: Within the next two years, legislation will be introduced proposing the extension of the FCC's current clear-as-mud indecency rules to mobile content and devices. Welcome to our bold new world of ubiquitous media and ubiquitous media censorship! But hey, don't forget, it's all "for the children" so that makes it all OK.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:05 AM | Free Speech

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