With our collective consciouses riveted to the financial crisis, the VP debate and the latest Mad Men episode, it's perhaps surprising that Congress has found the time to push some tech policy bills along. Yet, when said bills involve protecting "the children" a month before an election, perhaps it's not so surprising after all.
Case in point is the “The Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007." It flew through the Senate yesterday.
The measure requires the FCC to initiate a notice of inquiry to consider measures to examine:
1. the existence and availability of advanced blocking technologies that are compatible with various communications devices or platforms;
2. methods of encouraging the development, deployment, and use of such technology by parents that do not affect the packaging or pricing of a content provider’s offering; and
3. the existence, availability, and use of parental empowerment tools and initiatives already in the market.
No worries, right? All seems pretty harmless and well meaning. Yet, as we wrote when we originally covered this bill almost 14 months ago, there could be serious unintended consequences to this approach.
(One unintended consequence) is the regulatory creep toward treating Internet and wirelessly delivered video the same as broadcast content. We've noted many times here that efforts in the name of protecting kids could be the bridge drug toward justifying regulations across platforms. After all, from the perspective of a policy maker who looks and the end and not the means, if "bad" content is getting to kids, why does the delivery system or the type of device they are seeing it on matter?
Indeed, consider FCC requirement number one above. Those referenced platforms are further explained in the legislation as "including wired, wireless, and Internet platforms."
Just as significantly as the breach in the convergence firewall, is the fact that this gets the FCC into the business of looking at how to protect children from objectionable content online. Even if the purported focus is on examining market solutions, the natural extension of this query is considering where market solutions are supposedly may not working. It's the camel under the tent thing. And, someday, this particular camel is going to be looking to assert its relevance in a quickly converging world.
To this point, as Adam says in his post, the bill could have been much worse and far more prescriptive:
...the version of S. 602 that the Senate passed was amended before being voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee on August 2, 2007. The amended version made a few important wording changes to the original version of the bill. Specifically, the Senate Commerce Committee struck the phrase that specified the FCC would have the power “to encourage or require” the use of advanced blocking technologies. Needless to say, that’s a very important deletion since it means that S. 602 hasn’t granted the FCC sweeping new powers to require the creation of content controls or ratings systems. It’s one thing for the FCC to study the marketplace of existing controls and ratings systems. It’s quite another for the agency to get actively involved in the business of mandating or regulating those controls or rating systems....
...Nonetheless, in an attempt to empower parents it is important that Congress not empower regulators instead. S. 602 opens the door to an expansion of the FCC’s authority over media content on multiple platforms and threatens to undermine private, voluntary rating systems in the process. There are better ways to help parents and protect kids.
The chances of this bill getting through the House at this late date are slim, but certainly not impossible. There are always rider bills that need pretty ornaments on them. But, even if it doesn't get through the House, this is certain to come up again early in the next Congress, and, by then, it will be a worthy conversation on whether the FCC is the right organization to consider ways to protect children online. As the CDT's Leslie Harris said, "The inquiry, if conducted at all, ought to be pursued by 'a truly neutral body.'"