Parts of the Net may look and act like TV, but so far cyberspace has managed to steer clear of broadcast content regulations. But as the tube and PCs with Net connections converge, the line between the devices and the laws governing them continue to blur.
The latest example involves the Federal Communications Commission plan for implementation of the television V-chip, which reads voluntary movie-like ratings for TV shows. The agency has the job of carrying out the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandated by July of next year that any "apparatus designed to receive television signals" must ship with the V-chip, including PCs and future digital TVs.
The V-chip was designed to let parents block TV content that contains ratings such as "PG-14." The Clinton administration is also pushing Net content providers to adopt similar existing systems that filter rated sites via Web browsers in the interest of deterring young surfers from viewing adult material. Many free speech advocates oppose Net rating systems, fearing that eventually they will be mandated.
Some say the V-chip rules could result in a new way to rate and block Net content viewed through PC-TVs. For example, Web sites could use TV-like ratings, or existing online rating systems, if the V-chip was tweaked to support them.
But Congress also left the door open for the V-chip to apply to devices that allow Net broadcasting or stream online video, which the FCC acknowledged in the drafted TV and cable rules.
"We recognize that most video programming today is viewed on television broadcast receivers. In addition, personal computer systems, which are not traditionally thought of as television receivers, are already being sold with the capability to view television and other video programming," state the proposed FCC rules, which are open for public comment until November 24.
If the law were interpreted to include online video-streaming devices, then any computer that supported such multimedia devices could be required to embed a V-chip in the future. FCC officials say that is not the case, though they warn the hardware and Net industries to speak up now as to how the rule could harm them.
"Industry ought to come in and say very clearly that computers hooked to the Net are not TV-watching apparatuses, and that video on the Net is not TV," said an FCC official. "Logically, from our point of view this law is talking about over-the-air TV, not the Internet."
FCC chairman Reed Hundt also told CNET's NEWS.COM that unless a PC doubles as a TV, then the law doesn't apply. Still, the definitions aren?t yet set in stone. "We want the computer industry to explain to us what we should avoid doing," Hundt said. "Our feeling is still: let's leave the Net alone, and PCs alone."
Media legal experts agree that the law will most likely apply only to TV-viewing devices, and that Internet companies would resist any other interpretation. "Applying it to Internet content is not much of a reality," said Peter Gutmann, broadcast attorney for Pepper & Corazzini.
Companies such as Philips, Compaq, and Gateway 2000 already manufacture PC-TV devices that allow users to watch TV, surf the Net, or do both at the same time. "We are addressing the issue and we plan on being ready to include the V-chip by next year, because our product supports a TV-based signal," said Bill Graber, marketing manager for Gateway's Destination PC.
Groups that oppose online censorship are still wary of TV and the Net being thrown into the same category when it comes to the V-chip and ratings. "There is still huge concern about Congress trying to mandate their appropriate-content beliefs on everyone," said Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
However, she added, "I don't think Congress would pass a mandatory V-chip for the computer, because the V-chip is so lobotomized compared to both the hardware and software [rating and blocking] capabilities of computers."