Senate Commerce Committee Approves Bill to Require FCC to Study Content Blocking Technologies

August 2, 2007. The Senate Commerce Committee (SCC) approved an amended version [PDF] of S 602 [LOC | WW], the "Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007" by voice vote

This bill would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate a notice of inquiry (NOI) to examine "(1) the existence and availability of advanced blocking technologies that are compatible with various communications devices or platforms; and (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."

The bill would require the FCC to consider not only cable broadcast television, but "wired, wireless, and Internet platforms", and not only TV sets, but also "DVD players, VCRs, cable set top boxes, satellite receivers, and wireless devices".

The FCC currently has no statutory authority to regulate internet based speech.

The bill would require that the FCC then write a report for the Congress detailing the finding of this NOI.

The bill would not impose any obligations upon providers of video programming, device manufacturers, or others. Nor would it require the FCC to promulgate any new rules.

The bill defines "advanced blocking technologies" as "technologies that can improve or enhance the ability of a parent to protect his or her child from any indecent or objectionable video or audio programming, as determined by such parent, that is transmitted through the use of wire, wireless, or radio communication."

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), the lead sponsor of the bill, issued a release that states that "the goal of the Child Safe Viewing Act is to expand parents' ability to protect their children from inappropriate scenes and language on television, online, and other viewing devices. The bill requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review, within one year of enactment, technology that can help parents manage the vast volume of video and other content on television or the Internet.

Sen. Mark PryorSen. Pryor (at right) stated "It's an uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming. I believe there is a whole new generation of technology that can provide an additional layer of help for these parents ... My bill simply lights a fire under the FCC to take a fresh look at new options in the marketplace."

The Progress and Freedom Foundation's (PFF) Adam Thierer wrote a paper [6 pages in PDF], that was released on August 1, 2007, titled "Convergence-Era Content Regulation? S. 602, ``The Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007´´". The author is the PFF's.

While he praised the bill for not requiring "direct regulation of certain types of speech or media content", he added that the bill is unnecessary because "the market for parental control technologies is flourishing for every type of media content and platform".

He continued that "there is no need for Congress or the FCC to mandate tools that already exist. Moreover, if the FCC starts ``approving´´ certain technologies, it is likely to retard the development of new blocking technologies. Companies might just stick with the approved technologies and not develop new ones. In a rapidly moving technical field like this, no government agency can keep up with what the private sector is or would be doing."

He continued that the bill "is also problematic because it could potentially expand the focus and scope of the FCC’s authority to meddle with private rating systems and parental control mechanisms".

He also stated that the bill's reference to "wired, wireless, and Internet platforms" potentially opens the door to "the beginning of convergence-era content regulation at the FCC".

Finally, Thierer wrote that the bill's specification that new technologies "operate independently of ratings pre-assigned by the creator of such video or audio programming" seems to imply that "existing voluntary rating and labeling systems cannot be trusted. That is a dangerous presumption."