FCC’s New Notice on “Empowering Parents and Protecting Children in an Evolving Media Landscape”

by on October 25, 2009 · 13 comments

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a new Notice of Inquiry entitled, “Empowering Parents and Protecting Children in an Evolving Media Landscape” (MB Docket No. 09-194).  The purpose of this investigation is to:

seek information on the extent to which children are using electronic media today, the benefits and risks these technologies bring for children, and the ways in which parents, teachers, and children can help reap the benefits while minimizing the risks. (p. 2)… Our goal with this NOI is to gather data and recommend-ations from experts, industry, and parents that will enable us to identify actions that all stakeholders can take to enable parents and children to navigate this promising electronic media landscape safely and successfully. (p. 3)

This Notice builds on the FCC’s August 31st Report to Congress (“Implementation of the Child Safe Viewing Act; Examination of Parental Control Technologies for Video or Audio Programming”) that was required pursuant to the “Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007,” which Congress passed last year and President Bush signed last December. The goal of that bill and the FCC’s proceeding (MB Docket No. 09-26) was to study “advanced blocking technologies” that “may be appropriate across a wide variety of distribution platforms, including wired, wireless, and Internet platforms.” [I filed 150+ pages worth of comments in that proceeding, and here’s my analysis of why the bill and the FCC’s proceedings are worth monitoring. In previous posts here, I also listed all the major filings and reply comments that were submitted to the FCC in the matter.]

While the FCC’s new Notice outlines several positive impacts that media use may have for children, it then goes on to itemize a variety of concerns about media exposure:

While we recognize that electronic media technologies offer these potential benefits to children, we also explore the risks of harm that media use presents. As discussed below, these risks include (i) exposure to exploitative advertising; (ii) exposure to inappropriate content (such as offensive language, sexual content, violence, or hate speech); (iii) impact on health (for example, childhood obesity, tobacco use, sexual behavior, or drug and alcohol use); (iv) impact on behavior (in particular, exposure to violence leading to aggressive behavior); (v) harassment and bullying; (vi) sexual predation; (vii) fraud and scams; (viii) failure to distinguish between who can and who cannot be trusted when sharing information; and (ix) compromised privacy. We seek comment on these risks, whether parents, teachers, and children are aware of them, and what can be done to protect children from them.

It’s not really clear to me where the FCC finds the jurisdictional authority to investigate some of these things (hate speech? bullying?), but let’s not worry about that here. The question a lot of folks — especially those with strong First Amendment leanings — will be asking is: Where is the FCC heading with this in terms of new speech controls or content regulation?

In my earlier work on the “Child Safe Viewing Act,” I worried that the bill and resulting FCC investigation might be the beginning of “convergence-era content regulation.” I was pleasantly surprised, however, with the FCC’s final Report to Congress about the Child Safe Viewing Act, which did a very nice job highlighting the amazing diversity of parental control tools and methods on the market today.  That being said, the proceeding noted that “no single parental control technology available today works across all media platforms” and might have left the impression in minds of some critics that it was somehow possible to create a “universal” parental control or rating mechanism to deal with content across platforms.

Not only is it highly unlikely that such a silver-bullet solution is possible, but it’s unclear that it is even desirable.  I spent some time addressing this issue in my big filing to the FCC earlier this year.  If you jump to pg. 98 of my filing, you will find a section on “The Perils of Mandatory Controls, Restrictive Defaults or ‘Universal’ Ratings.” In it I argue:

the search for technological silver?bullet solutions and “universal” ratings or controls represents a quixotic, Holy Grail?like quest. Simply stated, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are no simple solutions or quick fixes to concerns about objectionable media content or online child safety. Only a “layered” approach—involving many tools, methods, and strategies—can get the job done right. And technological blocking controls are probably the least important part of that mix. Education and mentoring are far more important.

Moreover…  any move to force “universal,” top?down solutions could destroy future innovation in this space. [There are] unforeseen downsides to mandating controls and defaults as well as efforts to create universal rating or labeling schemes.

Again, to be clear, the FCC’s final report to Congress did not recommend any such thing, and the agency is to be commended for that.  But, at the end of the Child Safe Viewing Act report to Congress, the agency also noted that another Notice of Inquiry would dig a little deeper into possible solutions, and now here it is.  But it still remains unclear where the FCC might take this in terms of concrete steps. I was pleased to see a strong focus on the importance of education and media literacy in the agency’s latest notice, so that’s very good news. But there’s also plenty of hand-wringing about the supposed negative impacts of media throughout the report, which leads one to believe that the agency isn’t going to just settle for education-based solutions.

Importantly, there’s also a lot of talk about the supposed dangers of advertising to children in the new Notice:

Exposure to excessive and exploitative advertisements is a significant risk children face from electronic media. Advertisements of particular concern for children include: (i) those that promote products specifically to children; (ii) those that promote unhealthy food, thereby contributing to childhood obesity, and (iii) those that contain inappropriate content, such as offensive language, sexual content, and

This is actually one area where the FCC does have a little jurisdictional authority under the Children’s Television Act of 1990. But I don’t see how the agency can read that statute, which was intended for broadcast television, too broadly.  Regardless, if I had to bet on one thing we are certain to see come out of this proceeding, I’d say some expanded advertising restrictions are in the works.  But, again, the agency’s limited jurisdiction makes it hard for me to understand where they plan to go with this or how it would pass muster in the courts once challenged.

Anyway, stay tuned. Comments in the matter are due to the FCC by late December.  Meanwhile, one wonders how long it will be before Sen. Rockefeller and others up on Capitol Hill start to engage more on content-related issues.  They’ve been fairly silent so far this year.  In light of Sen. Rockefeller’s past efforts on this front, it seems likely he’ll eventually engage in this debate — and likely in a very pro-regulatory fashion.

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