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Mobile app content ratings system to debut next week

Next week brings the debut of a formal ratings system for mobile applications, a self-regulatory system that may or may not be adopted by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft in their mobile application stores.

Next week brings the unveiling of a new rating system for mobile applications, akin to what the video game industry has used for the past 17 years.

The CTIA-The Wireless Association today said that it's taking the wraps off a new mobile application rating system early next week with with the help of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). That's the self-regulating body that reviews and assigns age appropriate ratings to video games.

The original initiative (PDF) behind a mobile apps rating system was launched by the CTIA near the end of March and calls for "voluntary self-certification of apps." The program seeks to have app-makers define the content within their creations based on a specific set of ratings and guidelines. The end result is a system the CTIA hopes will give consumers "more informed choices" when using applications on mobile devices.

On the docket to talk at the unveiling, which takes place on November 29, are U.S. Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), alongside CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent and ESRB President Patricia Vance.

Mobile application stores already have numerous content controls in place, including ratings systems that can alert consumers to whatever content is contained within, however there is fragmentation:

  • For Apple that system includes four age, specific ratings as well as requiring that apps stick to its App Store Guidelines.
  • Google has a four-tier rating system as well, with developers assigning their own rating.
  • Research In Motion and Nokia have their own sets of content guidelines, but no specific age designation.
  • Microsoft combines both its own content guidelines, and carries over existing ESRB ratings if those titles have been ported from other platforms with those ratings in place.

Issues around these policy differences bubbled up earlier this year when several government officials asked Apple, Google, and RIM to remove applications that alerted users to police checkpoints. RIM complied, as did Apple eventually.

The CTIA is a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents carriers, manufacturers and other players in the wireless industry, including many of the companies with mobile application stores. Apple, Google, Research In Motion, Nokia, and Microsoft are listed as members, however there's no guarantee that those companies will comply with whatever plan the CTIA and ESRB lay out.

The ESRB was formed in the mid-1990s as a self-regulatory arm at a time when the video games industry faced regulation from the government. The group has publishers filling out a description of what types of content are in a game, as well as providing footage for a title's evaluation. In return the game gets a ratings classification. All of this comes with a fee, which varies depending on the cost of the game's development, and goes to support the ratings system's existence.