R-Rated Cell Phones
As more handsets offer video content, the mobile phone industry is developing a rating system to keep minors away from the adult stuff.
Anush Yegyazarian, PC World
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Late last year, Playboy launched IBod, a collection of videos and still images you can download and play back on your Apple IPod, either singly or in a slide show. More recently, Playboy has introduced a similar collection for Sony's PlayStation Portable gaming handheld. It's but a short step from there to a Playboy offering for your cell phone.
The rising interest--on the part of adult-content providers and others--in offering video on cell phones has prompted the CTIA, a telecommunications industry group, to prep a voluntary rating system for mobile phone content. Few details on the rating system are available as yet since it's a work in progress, but the CTIA has said it will develop the rating system with the aid of a third party. The CTIA is also consulting with other industry groups that have voluntarily rated their own content, including the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and computer game companies.
The rating system guidelines likely will debut sometime midyear, and are expected to distinguish content appropriate to the over-18 crowd from content for general consumption. Later, content distinctions will be more refined; I anticipate different ratings for content for kids, teens, and adults, or even more subgroups.
You can argue that rating systems rarely work--and having seen my share of kids and teens in R-rated films or playing games rated for mature audiences, I'd have to agree. However, in my opinion, this particular rating system could actually do what it's meant to do: Keep adult content out of children's hands while allowing adults the freedom to see or hear what they choose.
Why should this system succeed when others have failed? Because if it's implemented at the carrier level--which would make the most sense--it would remove control from handsets and place it with a central server, making it harder for kids to disable the filtering.
Carriers see ratings on content before they ever send it to a handset, and can automatically lock out anything the account owners (presumably the adults of the household), wish to keep from being displayed on a specific phone. To be most efficient, content restrictions should be imposed on a handset-by-handset (or number by number) basis, so that phones belonging to parents and college-age users could display more adult content than those used by children or younger siblings, even if all these phones are billed to the same account.
Of course, enterprising teens could still try to impersonate their parents and get restrictions lifted from their phones, but that possibility could be minimized with a few precautions at the carrier end, such as requiring passwords or personal ID numbers and an additional security question to change account settings. You need some proof of identity, plus a credit card, when you buy a cell phone, so we're already getting screened for age when we set up an account.
Mark Desautels, vice president of wireless Internet development for the CTIA, says carriers will determine the specific mechanism through which account holders have access to restricted content. This could be done through a preset permission method, as I've described above, or users could be required to use a credit card or a PIN any time they want to access restricted content. Rated content will include audio and music, video and still images, games, and lottery or online gambling to start; it's not a rating system for the whole Internet, Desautels says.
Vendors and carriers already censor our wireless content to some extent. You don't see the full names of certain songs when you're looking for a ring tone because titles that use obscene language are modified. And now that you can get ring tones with words instead of just electronic Musak, the offerings also get scrubbed of offensive lyrics. Some songs aren't even available because their lyrics can't be sanitized.
An effective rating system wouldn't just affect offerings of Playboy-style adult content. As cell phones get higher-quality screens, and as high-bandwidth 3G and 4G (third- and fourth-generation) networks are deployed, like EDGE and UMTS, a range of mainstream video content will actually be watchable. Today, I don't think I could stand trying to watch a full 30- or 60-minute episode of a favorite TV show on a mobile phone because of unreliable connections and slow frame rates. But in a year or two, I might well change my mind. If so, Tony Soprano could be making a call to my cell phone, along with the women of Sex in the City. An effective rating system would let me subscribe to those programs, while keeping my cousin's junior high school-age kids away.
Of course, if such content does become available, we'll all have to brush up on our public etiquette and make sure we're a little more careful about what we do with our cell phones and where.
What Makes for an Effective System
Effective covers a lot of ground when it comes to rating systems (or products, for that matter). For a system to be effective, it must start with centrally controlled filters, as I mentioned above. You also need cooperation from any content provider you do business with--which means they will all have to rate their content and tag it in some way so that any carrier understands what's got a green light for all ages, what's for teens only, and what's for adults. Since some self-filtering has been going on already, it may be that vendors will be eager to cooperate in order to get more choices in front of consumers--which, they hope, will entice us to pay for more content.
Standardizing a tagging and filtering system is the next hurdle. The fact that the cell phone content ratings initiative comes from an industry body could bode well for achieving agreement on a single set of guidelines, but it must be network-independent and work on all carrier and provider server software.
If the first guidelines are available midyear as planned, carriers could start implementing them late this year--so one hopes these issues will be resolved quickly. The next step is a more refined rating system that might well involve filtering at the household level. Clay Owen, spokesperson for Cingular Wireless, says his company is working on tools that would allow users to get more control over content, though there is no release date as yet. I guess we'll all have to wait to see (and hear).
Wireless 411 Update
Last year, several cell phone companies got together and proposed a directory service for cell phone numbers. As I wrote in September, the proposal is controversial because of privacy and monetary concerns. Who would be listed? Would you have to opt-in, or worse, opt-out? Who would have access to the numbers? Why should I be charged for a call made by someone who doesn't already have my number?
A U.S. Senate bill (S. 1963) that would codify some of the proposed guidelines got through committee, but did not go further. However, the Wireless 411 plan has been postponed to next year, though it was supposed to have already debuted. And there's a new bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1139) that gives existing users an opt-in choice while giving new users an easy opt-out mechanism when they get cellular service. It also forwards a call without disclosing the recipient's phone number; and it gives recipients a chance to accept or reject calls on a case-by-case basis, which limits the impact on your pocketbook. We'll have to see if this bill gets any further than its predecessors.