It was reported this week that some members of the U.S. Senate believe that the rating system used in US televisions needs to be taken further. There are moves to power-up the controversial V-Chip so that it can be embedded into more devices — such as computers, games consoles and mobile phones — which will, in turn, give parents greater control over what their children are able to watch.
The V-Chip, which has been compulsory in all televisions sold in the States since January 2000, allows parents to set filters which will block out content above certain rating levels. These levels are then encoded into television programs broadcast in the U.S.
As the lines between television and the Internet blur, and as more and more devices converge, I believe that these kinds of content filters have the potential to infiltrate our lives. Censorship of the net is near impossible — the disparate origins of media and the confusing laws surrounding it make sure of that. Therefore, if media cant be prevented from coming into the home, maybe the way its accessed can be restricted.
However, for any kind of censorship system to work, the content producers and providers must allow it to be categorised and rated by an external, independant body, which itself is regularly reviewed. Existing TV networks in the US already volunteer their material to this scrutiny, but what of the likes of YouTube and other user-generated content destinations. Should the site owner be responsible for maintaining any rating system, or is it the responsibility of the author? With the huge volume of new content uploaded every day, independent classification, done manually, would be impossible.
For content rating to have any significant impact on web-based media, it would also need to be a global effort. Similar to how existing content filters, such as NetNanny, currently classify websites — a global body would need to do the same for audio and video. However, this endeavour would need to be propelled by legislation and public opinion, and not commercial forces.
One method proposed by the Senate Committee is that content be filtered out using closed captions (subtitles). Technically this could be implemented, especially if YouTube/Google Video adopted the idea. And with the advanced search capabilities that Google has, not only could content be filtered using closed captions, but it could also be more effectively searched.