British Agency Proposes Content Labeling System

Ofcom, the regulatory agency for the U.K. communications industries, has proposed a universal content tagging system, according to a consultation document on their Web site. Although this is still very much at the preliminary stage, one of the goals of the proposal is to provide a way to label content that might be offensive or inappropriate, ostensibly to protect young people using electronic media.

The site says: "Viewers and listeners need to have clear, accurate, and timely information about the nature of content so that they can make informed choices. Our prime concern is to ensure consistency in the presentation of information related to possible harm and offence, in particular to help protect young and vulnerable people from inappropriate material. This advice can be effectively delivered using a content labeling framework.

"Ofcom will work with industry players to explore the possibility of creating a common content labeling (information) scheme for electronic audiovisual material," according to their written statement.

Martin White, managing director of U.K.-based Intranet Focus Ltd (and an EContent contributing editor), believes that the significance in Ofcom's efforts is the attempt to bring all content under a single regulatory umbrella.

"This is basically about being able to provide consistent tagging on media content. In the U.K., there are some well defined standards for film and video/DVD, but the rules for television are more a ‘gentlemen's agreement' between the broadcasters and the government," according to White. "What is interesting about this is that Ofcom is signaling that having different rules for different media is nonsense in a digital age."

David Curle, director and industry analyst at Outsell, believes that labeling only provides a limited way of dealing with inappropriate content and that Ofcom needs to look at broader educational issues. He says, "I think my take would be that labeling content only addresses a narrow range of the media literacy issue—blocking offensive and age-inappropriate material. The bigger issues around media literacy have to be addressed with education."

Curle says that, perhaps ironically, labels prevent users from making their own decisions about content, although he still sees a need for them under certain circumstances. "In some ways, labeling programs take the very opposite approach—they take decisions out of consumers' hands by giving them a simple set of codes or warnings to follow, without requiring them to make judgments themselves," he says. "But some kind of coding is probably appropriate for television and film content, which most people agree should be kept out of the hands of certain age groups."

In the end, Curle questions the effectiveness of such a labeling system in a world where widely accessible content comes from a variety of sources, not just traditional publishers and broadcasters. "Today one of the biggest trends is social publishing and user-created content," says Curle. "You can't just impose a requirement on a few publishers and broadcasters and expect that that covers the field—today everyone can be a publisher, and requiring thousands of bloggers to comply, for example, would be a pretty futile exercise."