March 13, 1998 3:40 PM PST

FCC approves PC-TV V-chips

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Net sites dodged the "V-chip," but computers with television tuners will be equipped with the censoring technology by next year, according to rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

The V-chip reads movie-like ratings that TV networks can voluntarily apply them to their shows. The technology allows TV viewers to screen out shows with violence or nudity, for example.

With the growing convergence of PCs and television, some computers now receive TV signals. That hardware is required to ship with the V-chip per the technical standards approved by the FCC. The microchip already has to be included in all TV sets with screens 13 inches or larger, under a law passed by Congress in 1996.

As reported yesterday, the FCC specified that V-chips would only be required to filter TV shows that can be viewed via a computer. The chip is not yet being designed to filter Net sites.

"The order makes it clear that this requirement applies only to broadcast transmissions and does not apply to video transmissions delivered over the Internet or via computer networks," the rules state.

In fact, the FCC has tried consistently to steer clear of regulating the Net. For example, the agency doesn't have jurisdiction over online radio programs that are streamed over the Net instead of being sent via airwaves.

Free speech advocates applauded the FCC's decision. "We called for a definitive ruling, and they gave it to us. The FCC cannot and will not approve ratings for Internet content. The law applies to TV sets, not computers," Media Access Project president Andrew Jay Schwartzman said in a statement.

As previously reported, the Clinton administration has pushed Net content providers to use so-called V-chip technologies that could read site ratings via Web browsers.

But many free speech advocates oppose such Net rating systems, fearing that eventually they will be mandated. When the FCC was developing the PC V-chip rules last year, some worried the result would be a new way to rate and block Net content viewed through PC-TVs.

Net sites now can apply TV-like ratings to content or video, using systems by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSACi), for example, which allow Web browsers to block access to sites based on the ratings.

It is possible that the V-chip could be tweaked to support the Web site tags. If online video-streaming devices are ever included under the V-chip rules, then any computer that supported such multimedia devices could be required to embed a V-chip.

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," stated the FCC proposal released last year.

 

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