Ratings and the V-chip.

Author:Dority, Barbara
Position:The Communications Decency Act brings censorship to the Internet and television - Includes a related article declaring the independence of cyberspace

The CDA makes it a felony--punishable by a $250,000 fine and up to six years in federal prison--to post "indecent" material to the Internet or Worldwide Web if accessible by minors. It also requires television networks to devise a comprehensive ratings system subject to Federal Communications Commission review. If the networks don't comply, or if their proposal is rejected, the CDA provides for the FCC to appoint a panel and impose its own ratings system on the networks.

In order to facilitate the censorship of so-called objectionable material on television, the CDA mandates that manufacturers install "V-Chips" in all new sets. These devices will be programmed to block "violent content"--an ambiguous and undefined term--according to a predetermined rating system.

The most extreme portions of the CDA now face two legal challenges, both filed by coalitions made up of a variety of civil, liberties organizations, major software producers, computer companies, and on-line service providers. In response to these lawsuits, a federal district court judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of these challenged portions pending a full judicial review of the act.

Both suits argue that "there are less restrictive means" than regulations established and enforced by government, "such as in-home blocking, to protect children from offensive content" entering their home via television or computer. In other words, so long as government itself doesn't establish and enforce Internet and TV ratings, this is not censorship. But of course it is!

The networks have resisted this sort of legal and "voluntary" censorship for years. But intense pressure and threats of government regulation have finally compelled entertainment executives to develop a "voluntary" rating system for all US. television. In a joint statement, the major networks announced that their system will take effect no later than January 1997, as mandated by the CDA.

The system, they say, will probably operate much like the Motion Pictures Association of America?s rating system. But the practical difficulties of this alone are so staggering that one wonders how much thought could possibly have gone into it. The 12-member ratings board of the MPAA rates 550 pictures a year--often a month or more in advance of release. Compare that to the more than 600,000 hours of TV programming each year. Some of this programming, airing on dozens of network and cable channels, is finished just before airing or is broadcast live.

President Clinton "brought" these TV and movie executives to Washington, D.C., on February 29 for a meeting on sex, violence, and values in entertainment. He is anxious to "help" them develop a rating system. But they came to the White House more as hostages than as voluntary participants. After all, government grants their broadcast licenses and has considerable influence over their actions.

Two additional proposals are still alive in Washington. The first, the Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act-known as the "Safe Harbor" Act--would forbid "the distribution of any violent video programming during hours when children are reasonably likely to comprise a substantial portion of the audience" Hopefully, this bill's outright ban on programming during certain time periods would be found unconstitutional, since the Supreme Court has ruled (in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969) that violent speech falls outside First...

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