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US carriers toughen policing of mobile content

Strict decency standards established by major carriers

Stringent regulations governing the nature of music, video and entertainment content on mobile phones could prevent content providers from reaching its target audience, as carriers enforce strict policies on standards of decency.

According to a report on The Wall Street Journal Online, strict policies introduced by US wireless carriers far exceed those governing federal regulations for television and radio broadcasts and drastically extend guidelines established for the mobile industry by the CTIA.

Focusing on the ban of sexually explicit or graphic content and encompassing expletives and derogatory references, media providers are expressing growing concern over the independently established rules that have, in some instances, called for a removal or amendment of content such as hip-hop music, ringtones or video clips which the carriers deem offensive.

A content guidelines document presented to WSJ by mobile media partners of Verizon Wireless includes a list of 83 specific words which are prohibited, including various names for body parts and terms describing sexual intercourse. The document extends the banned list to encompass any combinations of these words or alternate spellings and includes various categories for the "glorification or promotion of tobacco, alcohol or drug use".

In terms of sexually explicit content, the document details various categories of prohibited content, including see-through underwear or nipple shadows in the "Lingerie" category, and defining "Medium Shot Rear Nude - Female" as allowing "a full rear view but not with legs up or apart." Guidelines for men state that " a penis must not appear erect underneath clothing."

Whilst regulation of video content and images available on mobile phones would seem a logical and prudent step to take, particularly as carriers continue their efforts to broaden the mobile audience and take advantage of enhanced multimedia capabilities of modern handsets, an imbalance in self-regulatory policies and individual carrier's interpretations of what constitutes indecent material could have a serious impact on media providers.

Dean Newton, COO of Decade Mobile, which helps content providers develop mobile storefronts, commented: "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."

The FCC has the authority to police content on broadcast television and radio, but its rule over the video broadcast on mobile phones remains unclear. Defending its strict policy, Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said that the company has set decency standards for its content since 2002 and simply refined them over time, stating: "What we did was get very specific, as any responsible company would."

Rob Hyatt, Cingular Wireless' executive director for premium content, added: "The phone is quickly becoming an entertainment device, and what we want to do is stay ahead of public concern. We're trying to create a line, and we know it's not going to be perfect."

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