WASHINGTON – As music and video programming becomes widely available for cell phones, major U.S. wireless carriers are quietly setting strict decency standards for their content partners in an effort to stave off criticism from customers and regulators, according to the Adult Freedom Foundation (AFF) Monitor. Many of the rules go far beyond those set by federal regulators for television and radio, according to a story by Amol Sharma.
The rules, which bar sexually explicit or graphic content, have sparked concern among media providers. Some have already been forced to alter or remove hip-hop ringtones, video clips or other material that wireless operators considered offensive, people familiar with the situation say. The wireless industry trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, issued broad content guidelines in November, but largely left it to the carriers to implement their own policies.
Cingular Wireless, the largest U.S. carrier based on number of subscribers, has also developed content standards. Sprint Nextel Corp. has signed on to the CTIA guidelines but hasn’t crafted its own formal standards, a spokeswoman says.
The Verizon Wireless standards were described in a document provided by a person in the wireless industry, who said the carrier issued the document earlier this year. Verizon Wireless declined to comment on the document but confirmed it has "very specific" content rules.
According to the document, the Verizon Wireless rules cover all content — text, music, pictures, video, audio, games — even the names of the digital content files people download. The guidelines divide visual images of women into several categories, describing what is acceptable. For example, in the "Lingerie" category, prohibited visuals include "nipple shadow" and "see-through underwear." For the category of "Medium Shot Rear Nude — Female," the rules allow "a full rear view but not with legs up or apart." As for men, the guidelines admonish that a "penis must not appear erect underneath clothing."
A list of prohibited words is even more exhaustive, with 83 specific entries. It covers body parts — with various names for them — as well as a number of terms describing sexual intercourse. The creators of the standards also banned any combinations of these words or alternate spellings, and they reserved the right to update the document regularly. There are also several general categories of banned content, such as "glorification or promotion of tobacco, alcohol or drug use."
Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson says the standards are intended to protect customers from offensive content and protect Verizon Wireless’s brand image. He says the company had content standards in place as far back as 2002 but has refined them over time to ensure all explicit content is covered. "What we did was get very specific, as any responsible company would," he says.
The document also shows Verizon Wireless minding its business interests. Content providers are banned from making derogatory references to Verizon Wireless or its parent companies, Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC. Also banned: anything that would constitute "glorification" of competitors.
Verizon Wireless’s rules are a far cry from the anything-goes Internet, where attempts at speech restrictions have run into constitutional challenges, and there is a risk that they could backfire, alienating teen and other customers looking for edgy content. The strict rules could, for example, make it less attractive for some consumers to download music on their cellphones. But Verizon Wireless is betting that its strict controls will put parents, who usually pay their kids’ cellphone bills, and other customers at ease using its data and media services. Such usage currently accounts for about 10% of U.S. carriers’ revenue.
Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp., has also issued guidelines for content, generally barring profanity, nudity, sexually graphic images, violence and hate speech. In addition, the company is developing restricted programming for children under the age of 12 that will be introduced this summer.
According to a document used to brief Cingular’s content partners in March, the Cingular Safe filter won’t allow music with "parental advisory" labels, or ringtones that aren’t based on radio-edited versions of songs. A list of "restricted" words runs the gamut from explicit body-part references to the words "condom" and "lesbian." Images "depicting or insinuating nudity or partial nudity," including photos from Maxim and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, would be restricted. In the video space, Cingular Safe would generally allow movie content that is rated "G" or "PG" and TV content that is rated "G," "TV-Y," "TV-Y7," and "PG."
"We’re trying to create a line, and we know it’s not going to be perfect," says Rob Hyatt, Cingular’s executive director for premium content.
So far, much of the carriers’ enforcement has involved ad-hoc phone calls or emails asking content providers to remove or edit particular content, people in the content industry say. And each carrier takes a different approach. Smaller resellers of mobile services, such as Virgin Mobile, which targets a teenage audience and resells on Sprint’s network, are taking a more lenient approach, people in the industry say.
The Federal Communications Commission has authority under federal law to police indecent content on broadcast TV and radio on the theory that the public airwaves should be looked after in the public interest. The agency’s broad standard bars obscene material at all times and material depicting "sexual or excretory" organs or activities during hours that children are likely to be viewing. That was the standard the FCC used to levy a $550,000 fine on CBS for the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which singer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed. The agency’s authority to police video broadcast on cellphones is less clear, however, partly because consumers subscribe to such services voluntarily.
"The phone is quickly becoming an entertainment device," Cingular’s Mr. Hyatt says. "What we want to do is stay ahead of public concern." Cingular has briefed the FCC on its policies, Mr. Hyatt adds.
The content providers are watching closely to see how these standards develop and to protect themselves legally in case of any run-ins with the carriers. "While we completely understand the motivation behind these companies regulating content for various reasons, we think that to the greatest extent possible the creation of content should be left to the creative artists and media makers," says Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, a nonprofit advocacy group for the entertainment industry.
Major media entertainment companies already have to comply with FCC standards and the internal standards of the major television networks. The wireless world adds a new layer of complexity. There are some instances where content that would be permissible on television — a scantily clad woman in a bikini, for example — might not pass muster with some of the cellular carriers, people in the media industry say.
All the major carriers currently offer video programming, including short downloadable clips from familiar news and entertainment channels such as ABC, ESPN, E! and HBO. Sprint and Cingular also allow the streaming of live TV from some channels through their partnerships with mobile television provider MobiTV. "Whatever the standards are that our carrier partners expect us to abide by, we will do that," says MobiTV spokesman Jason Taylor.
Smaller media providers that offer ringtones and other content have a tougher challenge because they haven’t had to comply with such restrictions before and often have edgier content.
"Each carrier has come up with its own kind of quirky rules, which has really sent mixed signals to content companies, because you’re never really completely sure if you’re adopting a set of standards that apply across all the carriers," says Dean Newton, chief operating officer of Decade Mobile, which helps content providers develop mobile storefronts.