Monday, April 25, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Will A Wireless Ratings Scheme Be Enough to Head Off Cellphone Censorship?

As I've mentioned in previous posts (here and here), the potential for cell phone content regulation is something worth monitoring. There have been some rumblings in Washington already about the need for the wireless industry to take steps to shield children from potentially objectionable material even before it hits the market. And you'd have to be a fool not to realize that at some point very soon, technological & media convergence is going to bring adult-oriented fare to mobile devices. The question is, once that happens, will regulatory convergence follow technological convergence? More specifically, will broadcast TV and radio "indecency" controls be imposed on wireless content in coming years?

As this Reuters story notes, the industry is taking affirmative steps to head off this regulatory threat. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), is working to create a standardized content rating and filtering system that can be applied to all content offered on their networks, both audio and video.

That's going to be quite a challenge, but I'm sure they'll work something out. They know they have to, not merely to avoid federal content controls, but also to make a large (and very important) chunk of their customers who are parents (like me) happy. My kids are still too young to have their own cell phones, but I know when I start shopping around for my first wireless family plan, I'll be asking what sort of content controls each carrier offers. I'll want to be able to screen out certain types of content I find objectionable and I’ll expect my carrier to offer that option.

Luckily, as I mentioned last week, innovative self-regulatory solutions are already developing even before a ratings scheme gets worked out. Firefly Mobile, for example, is already marketing a tiny, voice-only phone for kids with just 5 buttons on it. Two of the buttons have a little icon for mom and dad to call them directly via pre-programmed numbers. It comes in fun colors and has plenty of goofy little accessories that kids will love. But the important thing here is that it gives parents a great deal of control over what their kids can access.

So, eventually, parents will have sophisticated technological tools like this at their disposal as well as a voluntary industry ratings scheme. Compared to ham-handed and overly inclusive federal censorship controls, this is a far less restrictive means of shielding children's eyes and ears from objectionable content. But don't be surprised if Congress and the FCC start pushing for greater content controls on mobile media and wireless devices anyway. They are currently pushing for expanded censorship authority for cable and satellite television. If they get their foot in the door there, there isn't much stopping them from going after mobile content next.

Of course, they'll be hard-pressed to find any constitutional authority for all of this, but since when did that slow the urge to expand content regulation?

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:44 AM | Free Speech , Wireless