Reasonable approach to filtering DVD content

April 28, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

AS A CARD-CARRYING newspaperman for 35 years, I've been a staunch defender of adults' First Amendment right to read, write or view just about anything they want, even if it's stuff that you or I might find outrageous, blasphemous, detestable, disgusting or all of the above.

On the other hand, as a parent who raised a couple of vidkids into what I hope is a healthy adulthood, I sympathize with folks who might not be happy exposing their children to some of the excesses of popular culture.

One problem involves movies. More than a few parents - and they're not all prudes - complain that otherwise acceptable films contain gratuitous sex, violence, blasphemy or other content they don't think their kids should be watching. What to do about it?

Congress did something last week when the House passed and sent to the president a piece of legislation called the Family Movie and Copyright Act. Specifically, it legalizes a little piece of technology called Clearplay, developed by a Utah company of the same name. Clearplay deals deftly - from a legal if not an artistic standpoint - with the issue of material that's suitable for adults but not necessarily for children.

Clearplay (www.clearplay.com) sells a $149 DVD player that has been modified to download "filters" that bleep out or eliminate objectionable content from more than 1,000 movie titles, with new films added monthly. Customers pay $7.95 a month or $79 a year for access to the entire filter library and new titles as they become available.

Unlike other "sanitizing" services that buy copies of movies and resell permanently edited versions under the same title, Clearplay doesn't change the content of the DVD. Adults are free to turn off the filter on their player and watch the movie with all the sexy and blasphemous parts intact.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood is outraged by these outside sanitizing attempts. Although studios produce cleaned-up versions of their films for use on airliners, the creative artists behind the movies don't like the idea of someone else fiddling with their artistic vision.

As a result, Hollywood studios and the Directors Guild of America have filed federal lawsuits against Clearplay and a bunch of other sanitizing services, claiming copyright infringement and misappropriation of their works.

The legislation approved by the House (and earlier by the Senate) specifically legalizes Clearplay technology for use in the home. That effectively eliminates the lawsuits against Clearplay, although Hollywood's legal action against sanitizers who modify the movies is not affected by the legislation.

Although I would undoubtedly disagree with most of Clearplay's editing choices, I like its technology. It gives parents the control they want without doing permanent harm to anybody's work. And by the time the kids figure out how to get around the filters (which they inevitably do), they're probably old enough to watch the prohibited content anyway.

Interestingly, although the movie industry doesn't like Clearplay, it did not try to block passage of the Family Movie Act because the law is limited to nonpermanent filtering technology and has an unrelated provision that the studios have long sought. That provision gives the government the authority to arrest a kid who brings a video camcorder into a theater and toss him in the federal slammer for three years. Most of the pirated movies circulating these days are captured in theaters, and the studios believe this will help put a stop to it. I tend to doubt it.

Internet 911 progress

Now some good news for Internet phone users. Although I've tried a variety of these providers over the last year or so, I've been unwilling to recommend any of them as a sole source of phone service. The problem is safety: Most provide only a tenuous link to 911 emergency services.

That situation is likely to get a lot better, at least here in the East, with Verizon's announcement Tuesday that it will give companies using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) access to the network that routes landline 911 calls to local emergency centers.

The largest regional phone company says it will try out its technology in New York City this summer and expand it if it proves successful. The decision is a major win for VoIP operators, who like to advertise themselves as providing real phone service but definitely come up short in the 911 area, sometimes dangerously so.

The problems with linking VoIP service to the nation's 3,000 emergency call centers have been technical and competitive.

The Enhanced 911 system, designed 35 years ago for an analog phone network, does two things. First, it routes a customer's call to the right E911 center. Just as important, it automatically provides the 911 operator with the physical address of the caller. This is critical if the caller can't speak or lapses into unconsciousness, or if the connection is broken.

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