Could we benefit from having censor ratings for online content?

Most of us have experienced censorship in the online ecosystem. Earlier, the government would block explicit content, be it pornography websites or content that promoted religious violence, anti-social and illegal activities, or incited misinformation about the country or other friendly / neighbouring governments.

This censorship took unexpected forms following the Citizen Revolutions of the Middle East and Africa. Now, social media websites and related services and apps have come increasingly under the scanner of the State; not only that, telecommunication services are also barred with the justification that citizens are taking the law into their hands by misusing them (the services) to encourage disobedience and revolt.

That’s the current scenario and many of us either deal with it on a daily basis while some others post information about censored sites in their social networking groups. There are still others, the digital activists and concerned ‘web privacy and freedom’ citizen groups who take up the cause of censorship with the State through campaigns, letters, taking the matter to the media, and conducting workshops that involve creating awareness among the Public.

While online censorship is currently making news because of the force of recent affairs, we must not forget that mass media goods such as films, music and books have also been under continuous scanner by the State since the time these materials came to produced en masse (in bulk, disseminated to a larger and wider audience). Before a movie is released in cinema halls, it comes rated with a certificate (A, U/A, G, R) by the State Film Censorship Board. On television, all the soap operas and advertisements that we enjoy are also scanned for violence, explicit language, vulgar or obscene scenes, and so are music albums: all CDs / cassettes are supposed to carry mandatory warning if they contain adult / explicit language.

Censorship has been used by the State since ages to control information and content that it feels is detrimental to its well-being; order, security, cohesion, and disciple are the pillars of a well-controlled state. The way this feature is expressed, though, is through exhibiting concern for the welfare of the citizen. Films or TV serials are not exhibited without censorship as it might impact an unsupervised kid (parents have gone out, and a kid may be watching a horror movie) or teens who might not be mature enough to watch sexually explicit scenes that your local cable guy showcases every weekend.

According to the Supreme Court of India:

Film censorship becomes  necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or good behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary

So, while censorship is NOT a foolproof way to “save” kids or other vulnerable audience from media content, the alternative – free, unrestricted, violent and sexually graphic material available anywhere – is also not appealing. I find the idea of censorship is justified primarily because mass media is everywhere now and adults / parents / guardians cannot always supervise the books, comics, films, music, serials, and the 100s of other audio-video content that children below 18 get their hands on!

What concerns me more today is the proliferation of material online and the easy access to the same. While it took money to buy a video cassette or music CD once upon a time, today, with 24×7 net access, the same content is easily available on YouTube or any torrent site for free download. How then can the State regulate access to such content and make it age appropriate?

Perhaps the State could make it mandatory for all media producers to mark their content on a universal web rating? The clauses and principles of such a system could be discussed at international forums where government departments, media producers, civil society members, educators, cultural practitioners and other public stakeholders meet and agree upon.

All websites could carry a ratings symbol in the address bar space, which shows details of its certificate when the mouse hovers on it. But the devil is in the details, right! How would you classify the range of audio-textual, video-graphical, literary-porno materials and the permutation-combination content that the web is filled with? We would need a multitude of classification – and not just the broad, universal symbols for General, Adult, Parental Guidance, etc.

In the US, viewing online pornography is illegal if under 18

Secondly, what is the guarantee that online content with State-approved ratings won’t be accessed by those without permission? As a teenager, I still managed to get my hands on “crazy stuff”, what could possibly deny access to others? This is when unique online IDs would be of big help. Everyone logging online must have a permanent net-ID that would have minimal but vital information about their age, guardian information and locality. So, pornography, violent video games or erotic literature would be automatically locked to those under 15.

But isn’t it rather odd that from childhood to the age of 18, we are kept safe from the harmful effects of violence and vulgarity, but the day we hit the magic age, we suddenly develop the mental and emotional capacity to see brutal murders, rape, obscene songs on television?

There are so many issues that my blog doesn’t provide answers to. What is the minimum age at which it becomes ‘normal’ to view a violent film? Some teens are more mature than others and can handle mature books, so won’t censorship affect them? In many countries, having consensual sex in your early teens is legal and girls below 15 also have babies – so could we bar them from viewing adult material when they have done everything possibly adult!

Information has always been a bargaining chip, across all societies and hierarchies of power. There are groups who are fighting for a free and open web space, while there are others who are practising anarchy. In counterpoint, the State tries harder everyday to bring everyone and everything under surveillance. Is there no middle ground to my concern? Would love to hear from my readers.

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