Is This Post PG-13? Helpful Bureaucracy and Web Content Labels

My last post looked at efforts (since adopted by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee) to require Web sites to label certain content. Across the pond, the British Board of Film Classification has proposed a voluntary certification system, similar to that used for films, for Net material. (Here in the States, the MPAA movie rating system works on a similar, “voluntary” system, although nearly all theaters – the traditional distributors of cinematic product, at least pre-Netflix – refuse to show unrated films.) The Board’s spokesperson explains that this is “about providing information.” How helpful!

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Oh, wait, they have – it used to be called PICS. And the V-Chip. Both are synonymous with the phrase “abject failure.”

Simon Davies, at Privacy International, has a great line, calling this plan the “most stupid intervention since the registration of fax machines and photocopiers in communist China.”

My take is that this is an entity – the film classification board – trying desperately to remain relevant in a media shift (on-line and to non-theater-distribution) that threatens its existence. Unfortunately, the Board is applying 20th century approaches to 21st century technology. It’s like classifying jet fighters as though they were merely a new form of horse cavalry.

Really, the Board’s approach goes in one of two directions. It could move towards enabling parents to block sites that are, say, not PG or G-rated (or the Brit equivalents). Unfortunately for the Board, there are far more skilled competitors in this space; they’re known as “commercial filtering software providers.” See, e.g., Secure Computing, Websense, and NetNanny. The other direction is to use the labels to enhance supervision – parents might check what sites their kids are visiting (maybe combining logging with searches of ratings?), or could peer at the screen to look for the scarlet letters (NC-17 or such). Possible, but time-intensive and, in the first case, requiring some tech savvy.

Labelling works poorly for the Web: there’s too much content, it changes too rapidly, labels are limited and inherently subjective, and key intermediaries (browser makers, ISPs, content providers) simply can’t agree on a set of rules or standards. Perhaps the Film Board should devote its energies to more worthwhile pursuits, such as encouraging more Wallace and Gromit movies, or perhaps arranging for the new James Bond to assassinate Mr. Bean.

2 Responses to “Is This Post PG-13? Helpful Bureaucracy and Web Content Labels”

  1. The other direction is to use the labels to enhance supervision – parents might check what sites their kids are visiting (maybe combining logging with searches of ratings?)

    You know, this just gave me an idea: parental locks on history edits. If the kid can’t erase his on-computer trail it provides a valuable resource for the interested parent.

    Further, the parent must be an active participant, which will sate the personal-responsibility arguers.

    Evybuddy Happy!

  2. Not a bad idea, and it’d save having to install one of those keylogger programs. (I suspect some of the better firewalls could simply record HTTP traffic destinations, but searching that log could be less fun.) There are a couple potential hurdles, though: 1) the kid uses anonymizer.com or its ilk, 2) kid downloads and runs, say, Opera, 3) parent (probably Dad) doesn’t like this option because there’s only one computer and, well, kids aren’t the only ones who surf naughty sites… :)