Reflections on “Beyond Censorship” Summit

by on June 8, 2006 · 4 comments

I participated in a major conference yesterday sponsored by the New America Foundation (NAF) and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) entitled “Beyond Censorship: Policies and Technologies to Give Parents Control over Children’s Media Content.” The event featured an impressive collection of lawmakers, regulators, corporate leaders and public policy experts who gathered to discuss, as the conference agenda stated, “who is responsible for protecting kids from inappropriate media–industry, the government, or parents armed with new technologies?”

I thought it might be worth transcribing a few of my notes here since others might be interested in what was said. I did the same thing in February after I participated in a similar conference that Stephen Balkam of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) hosted at Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. Incidentally, I’m going to be co-hosting a similar event with Stephen and ICRA next week in Brussels entitled “Protecting Children AND Free Expression in Our New, Digital Content World.” EU Commissioner Viviane Reding will be on hand to deliver a keynote address and then we’ll be hearing from many others on these issues.

What follows below is a brief summary of yesterday’s NAF / KFF discussion over the span of the 3-hour event.


Opening Addresses by Lawmakers

After a brief introduction by NAF’s Michael Calabrese, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) took the podium and noted that “parents are struggling to keep up” with our “exponentially more complex and pervasive” and “rapidly changing” media universe. Sen. Clinton argued that “government is not the answer, but has a role to play.” She then outlined some of the steps she thought government should be taking, including measures she has sponsored to increase funding for “media effects” research and her bill to regulate the sale of video games, “The Family Entertainment Protection Act” (FEPA). (I discuss and critique Sen. Clinton’s FEPA bill in this recent paper).

She also stressed that we (and by “we” I think she meant the government too in most cases) need to keep an eye on emerging problems such as social networking websites, interactive advertising (especially as targeted to children), and “cyber-bullying.” Senator Clinton also used the occasion to announce the release of her own “Media Safety Guide for Parents,” which is a 1-page tip sheet of parental pointers. She ended by reminding the crowd that she had long ago written how “it takes a village” to raise a child and that, in her opinion, this is more true than ever before.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) came next and built on Sen. Clinton’s “it takes a village” theme. In fact, Landrieu and the next two speakers–FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Deborah Tate both stressed the “it takes a village” theme repeatedly. After Sen. Landrieu noted it takes much more than a village to raise kids, Commissioner Tate agreed, saying: “I’d suggest that it takes more than a village to positively influence our children–it takes a society. A society dedicated to the idea that our children’s minds are our most vital national resource. We must all work together to shape those minds.” And Commissioner Copps made similar arguments during his remarks. (I was waiting for someone to make the case that “it takes an Intergalactic Consortium of Planets to raise the children,” but no one went quite that far.)

However, both FCC Commissioners Copps and Tate both made a major pitch for a la carte regulation of cable and satellite television, and Commissioner Copps also said that media ownership controls needed to be used to curb what he called “Big Media’s race to the bottom” in terms of content. Copps is convinced that if we broke our media universe into tiny bits that it would completely change the complexion of modern media for the better. (I’m not sure how his theory fits in the porn world where ownership is about as decentralized and atomistic as is possible, and yet I doubt he likes the result!) Sen. Copps also endorsed the idea of a “family-friendly” prime-time TV code of conduct, regulation of violence on TV, oversight of advertising, and the application of many of these things to cable and satellite television.

Generally speaking, therefore, despite this being a conference about moving “beyond censorship,” the opening policymaker addresses were heavily preoccupied with government-based solutions. And, ironically, at the same time this summit was taking place, Congress was busy passing a significant increase in broadcast TV and radio “indecency” fines. So they certainly haven’t moved “beyond censorship” in Congress!

Panel Discussions

After the keynote addresses, there were presentations by Vicky Rideout, Vice President of the Kaiser Family Foundation, David Kleeman, President of the American Center for Children and Media, and Elizabeth Perle, Editor-in-Chief of Common Sense Media. Vicky Rideout discussed the findings of Kaiser’s latest “Generation M” study. I can’t begin to summarize all these Kaiser findings, but I encourage you to check out their surveys to see how children use media today. While television continues to dominate (and a whopping 68% of parents let kids have TVs in the rooms!), new media devices and outlets are increasingly grabbing their attention.

In this new multimedia world, David Kleeman pointed out that media is not going to “go away” but instead become even more prevalent in the lives of our children. Therefore, he said, the “just-turn-it-off” solution no longer works since we live in an always-on world of ubiquitous media. Families need new and better resources to cope in this environment, but there are no “one-sizes-fits-all” solutions, he said.

Elizabeth Perle made similar arguments and pointed out that in a world of organically generated media content (think MySpace and YouTube) the challenge is even greater since kids can be both media producers and media creators. Perle said that even though she “wasn’t a big believer in regulation,” that the issue of children’s exposure to objectionable media has become a “global public health problem.” She also criticized private ratings systems and parental controls for not being reliable enough. Specifically, she disliked the fact that industries (especially the video game industry) were rating their own material and wanted such control lodged in someone else’s hands to avoid what she felt was “ratings creep.” Perle concluded by noting that, despite the best efforts of industry, government and parents, at some point “we just have to trust them (our children).” She pointed out that ratings systems and parental controls are most effective in the early, pre-teen years. But at some point (probably as they are entering high school), the training wheels generally become less important or effective and probably have to come off entirely. We have to hope that they have learned the lessons we have tried to teach them at that point and can make smart decision even when Mom and Dad aren’t around. I thought that was pretty sensible advice.

On subsequent panels we heard from corporate representatives of Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft and TiVo about the new parental screening tools being embedded in their next generation devices. Mike McKeehan of Verizon talked about the many steps his company was taking as it expands wireline and wireless broadband. He discussed the importance of metadata tagging as a key ingredient to successful filtering of online content in the future. Specifically, he discussed the important work that ICRA is doing to make metadata tagging a reality. Verizon, AT&T and Microsoft are all ICRA members are committed to working with them to better label online content.

Joe Miller of TiVo gave the crowd a preview of the company’s wonderful new “KidZone” product that will offer parents to ability to search and filter television programming to better suit their individual needs. TiVo is working with several groups (such as the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media) to use private ratings or recommendations to construct the system. It really is a wonderful tool and Joe said TiVo is working to find a way to do the same thing for Internet content.

When it was my turn to speak, I used my three minutes to make three simple points:

(1) We MUST look to move “beyond censorship” and toward a more rational, effective and constitutional system of shielding children from potentially objectionable content because censorship is increasingly impractical or even impossible in a borderless world of abundant, cross-platform digital media flows. (I also mentioned the constitutional hurdles to censorship, at least here in the U.S.)

(2) The good news, however, is that there has never been a time in our history when parents have had more tools, more ratings systems and more screening technologies at their disposal to filter or block objectionable media content (See my recent Progress & Freedom Foundation paper “Parents Have Many Tools to Combat Objectionable Media Content” for more detail.)

(3) While these controls and ratings systems are not perfect, they are certainly better than anything we had access to in the past. Critics can always argue that media and communications companies should “do more” to address the concerns parents have, but it’s important to realize that they are already doing quite a bit. The bottom line, I argued, is that empowering and educating parents in this way ALWAYS represents a superior approach to this problem over government censorship and, in my opinion, these private controls adapt faster to technological change and the needs of parents.

There was some push-back to my presentation from Patti Miller of Children Now, Tim Winter of Parents Television Council, and especially Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Association. McIntyre argued that regulation–or at least the threat of regulation–was important because by threatening “the hammer” of censorship, government could often force media operators to take important steps. Tim Winter of the PTC kept plugging a la carte mandates on cable and increased fines on broadcasters as the primary solution and dismissed most existing private parental controls. And Patti Miller, as well as representative from the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), argued that parents were increasingly “too busy” to use many of the “complicated” controls I outlined.

I don’t think most of the controls and ratings scheme out there are that difficult, but I can certainly appreciate the need for simplicity to make these controls as easy to program and use as possible. Then again, that might mean sacrificing some of the sophistication that other parents desire in these controls or ratings schemes. For example, I like the level of detail in the video game industry’s private ratings system (the ESRB), and I love the new set-top box controls that cable, satellite and telephone companies are using for their new video offerings. Same goes for the ICRA labels and various Net filters out there.

These systems offer parents the ability to be very specific about what they do and do not want their children to see in the home. Thus, I would hate to think we’d sacrifice that sort of sophistication in order to make things “simple” for parents. Sometimes parenting is tough business and I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have parents walk through a few menus on a set-top box, a video game console, or and Internet browser to protect their kids.

Summary

So, to briefly summarize, to the extent there were some common themes developed at the event, they were:

>> Not many people truly want to move “beyond censorship;” most want to at least keep censorship on the table as a threat to spur private action. And some want to just go ahead and regulate no matter what.

>> Parental controls are improving but not all controls are equal; some are better than others (there was a lot of praise for TiVo in this regard).

>> Also, while parental controls are improving, technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace and places strains on old systems. Thus, controls need to continuously evolve.

>> There seemed to be less faith in ratings systems. A couple of people raised the issue of industry rating their own content and questioned whether there was a better way. The issue of “ratings creep” was raised a few times.

>> There are no “one size fits all” silver bullet solutions. Parents need many solutions to keep up.

>> There was a lot of concern about how parents can keep pace with the rise of new, bottom-up, user-generated media. Social networking websites, in particular, we used as an example of the challenges parents will face in the future as their children spend as much time being media creators as media consumers.

>> Finally, everyone seemed to agree that more parental education was needed. “Media literacy” was a popular phrase during the day’s discussion and there were calls for more industry and government-led efforts to help educate both parents and kids in terms of being better, smarter media consumers.

  • John Middleton

    Interesting write up, thanks for that.

    Is this the event you will be attending in Brussels: http://europa.eu.int/information_society/activities/sip/si_forum/forum_june_2006/index_en.htm
    If not I would be interested to hear which it is?

  • Adam Thierer

    Thanks John. No, that’s not the event I’m co-hosting, although I am aware of it. The one I’m hosting with ICRA is a much smaller affair with about 40 or so key organizations and corporations represented. We’re just getting together for a half-day next Wednesday to discuss these matters and get a progress report regarding what various media players are doing to address child protection issues.

  • John Middleton

    Interesting write up, thanks for that.

    Is this the event you will be attending in Brussels: http://europa.eu.int/information_society/activi
    If not I would be interested to hear which it is?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Thanks John. No, that’s not the event I’m co-hosting, although I am aware of it. The one I’m hosting with ICRA is a much smaller affair with about 40 or so key organizations and corporations represented. We’re just getting together for a half-day next Wednesday to discuss these matters and get a progress report regarding what various media players are doing to address child protection issues.

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