More on the Potential for Cellphone Content Controls

by on May 12, 2005

There’s an important piece on B1 of today’s Wall Street Journal about the growing market for mobile media content. In particular, the article focuses on the potential for sexually oriented content to be a major driver in this market over the next few years. Already, several cell phone carriers or content providers are developing such services.

That should hardly be surprising. One of the uncomfortable realities of the media marketplace is that sexually oriented content has been wildly popular–indeed, it has been the ultimate “killer app.” You can go back to the early history of newspapers, magazines, photography, cable, satellite, and the Internet and see how sexual content has been a major driver of growth for each medium. So, it will be the same for cell phones. That’s why today’s WSJ article uses the creative title: “Sex Cells.”

As I’ve mentioned in several previous posts (here, here and here), this raises the possibility for cell phone content regulation by federal officials. 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. But there’s no denying that this content will soon be available. The question is, once that happens, will broadcast TV and radio “indecency” controls be imposed on wireless content in coming years?

Luckily, as the WSJ story and other reports have noted, 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.

As I mentioned in my last post on this issue, 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.

One innovative self-regulatory solution that I find very interesting is the Firefly Mobile cellphone. It’s 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.

But this is really only a good solution for kids under say the age of 10 or 12. Teenagers are going to demand more sophisticated phones that offer media capabilities for sports clips, news updates, and other stuff. So, the industry will need to go further than just offering voice-only phones with 5 buttons. They’ll need to follow the model already established by the U.K. six largest cellphone operators, who have agreed to establish age-verification systems and filters to prevent more savvy teenagers under the age of 18 from getting content their parents don’t want them to see or hear. Thus, credit card verification schemes and other age-verification schemes will likely be put in place. For example, youngsters could be required to input PIN numbers to access specific types of content and only their parents would have access to those PIN numbers as the account holders for the family. (Again, the money to buy these cell phones and all that content has to come from somewhere, so that alone gives parents a fair degree of control over what their kids can access).

Compared to ham-handed and overly inclusive federal censorship controls on all mobile media devices, 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 of federal officials to expand content regulation?

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