Today, President Bush signed S. 602, “The Child Safe Viewing Act.”(CNet story here). The measure requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to examine the availability of, and methods of encouraging the use of, advanced blocking technologies that help parents protect their children from transmitted video and audio programming that the parents determine to be indecent or objectionable. The FCC has 270 days to complete the report.
I wrote about the measure more extensively when it passed the Senate back in October. As I noted in then, the measure was modified slightly when it passed through the Commerce Committee last year, but it still contains some provision that could be problematic. Specifically, as part of the FCC’s required study, the bill commands the FCC to “consider advanced blocking technologies” that:
- may be appropriate across a wide variety of distribution platforms, including wired, wireless, and Internet platforms;
- operate independently of ratings pre-assigned by the creator of such video or audio programming.
Those two provisions are cause for concern since they raise the specter of what I referred to as “convergence-era content regulation” in a PFF paper about the bill last year. It does so in two ways. First, it opens the door to FCC bureaucrats investigating media content controls for wireless and Internet platforms, something it has never been empowered to do before. Second, by specifying that these new advanced content blocking technologies should “operate independently of ratings pre-assigned by the creator,” the law seems to imply that existing voluntary rating and labeling systems cannot be trusted. That is a dangerous presumption that suggests the FCC might be able to come up with better media ratings on its own.
Of course, I could be overplaying these fears. The FCC might just stay true to its required role to act as an independent agency that can objectively evaluate the market and produce a balanced report on the issue. Then again, like so much else on this front, the entire endeavor could become a politicized mess and another exercise in media-bashing, complete with calls for greater regulation “for the children.”
Bottom line: We have to hope that the FCC doesn’t use this “study” as an excuse to undermine existing voluntary parental controls and private content rating efforts or, worse yet, embark on an effort to impose new speech controls or mandatory rating and labeling schemes on media content. If they follow that path, a serious First Amendment battle awaits.
P.S. If the FCC wants to save some time and some taxpayer dollars, I am happy to send over free copies of my big Parental Controls & Online Child Safety report to all FCC officials. Not to sound arrogant, but I believe my report already accomplishes most of what the bill requires. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for the FCC to call.
[Note: The Washington Watch page for S. 602 is here.]