Back from the Gloom: V Chip Resurrection

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Tom Keating
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Back from the Gloom: V Chip Resurrection

A decade ago, one of the hottest topics in CE was the V Chip, a little device that enabled televisions to filter content. There was much debate about the benefit, legality and ultimate cost of this device that enabled consumers to determine what content they would watch on TV.

Ultimately, the little chip that could was incorporated into the 1996 Telecommunications Act, with the result that as of January 1, 2000, all analog televisions sold in the U.S. had to include a V Chip. Taking the next step, now digital televisions (DTV) and other products with embedded digital receivers will be required to include V Chip capabilities, together with a new programmable interface.

In one week, on March 15, all new products with digital television receivers – including TVs, video recorders and set-top boxes – must incorporate parental control capabilities with a new "open" version of the V Chip that can be reprogrammed to adapt to changing standards. (The original chip could not be reprogrammed; hence the need for a new one that can be adapted for changing time and social mores.) This will also include media center PCs that have tuners built into the motherboard. This new chip is known as the v.gis.

According to a report in the online version of PC Magazine, www.pcmag.com, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) open V Chip mandate coincides with the U.S. digital TV transition signed into law in this month and slated for completion by February 2009.

While the furor over the V Chip has died down substantially from when it was first mandated in 1996, the chip's introduction marked the first battle in the war over content between consumers, content owners and the government, which still rages today.

The V Chip's supporters claimed the technology offers parents and consumers tools to help them limit objectionable content, but studies have found that few actually take advantage of the chip's capabilities. (Although the “V” in V Chip is often thought to stand for "violence," the letter actually refers to “ViewControl.”)

According to a 2004 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 15% of all parents actually used it, up from 7% in 2001. Of those that did use it, 61% found it very useful.

The technology has also dropped off the radar screen of both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Digital Democracy, which do not have currently assigned staffers to follow its progress.

Seems like the V Chip controversy ain't what it used to be. The phone lines are open …



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