Industry sees need for oversight of ‘wireless vice’

Analysts and wireless industry officials say the ready access to online gambling and pornographic Web sites via cellular phones and wireless handhelds should push the industry toward self-regulation before governments step in.

“The wireless industry needs to think about what to do about wireless vice before government decides for us,” analyst Alan Reiter of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., told industry leaders last week at the annual Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association conference in Las Vegas.

Reiter and several members of a panel discussion on wireless vice said the issue touches a broad range of corporate issues and should be handled better than past attempts to self-regulate vice, especially pornography and violence seen by children on the wired Internet. Such efforts fell short several years ago, leading to stepped-up action by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and hearings in Congress.

Both are prospects that wireless industry officials will want to avoid, Reiter said.

He noted that more than 60 countries allow gambling on the Internet, and gamblers can now use wireless devices to authorize bets. Reiter said he also recently discovered several Web sites offering nude photographs for downloading to wireless handheld devices. With some newer handhelds, the pictures can be displayed in high resolution and color on a screen the size of a baseball card.

“It changes the definition of pornography somewhat when it comes to a device that is portable and can be carried easily by a child,” Reiter said. “How long is it before someone complains to a congressman, ‘Look what my child found on our cell phone?’ ”

The issue is also a challenge for businesses, and for IT managers, he said, “this is just one more thing to give the poor IT manager a heart attack, worrying about how workers are using cell phones or handheld devices.”

The possibility that employees could be accessing inappropriate material with cell phones or personal digital assistants gets even thornier for corporations that don’t provide their workers with cell phones or handhelds, allowing them instead to use their own. Reiter said that practice might make it more difficult for a company to forbid workers from gambling wirelessly at work or surfing for porn in ways that offend other employees.

Many analysts have long urged companies to buy handhelds for their workers, partly to ensure that their usage and the data upon them is subject to company rules and practices.

Because the use of wireless Internet in the United States is just now beginning to speed up, the industry has time to set up filtering systems for handheld browsers, said Ray Soular, chairman of SafeSurf in Newbury Park, Calif. SafeSurf has created a nine-point adult material rating system for Web sites that parents and others can use to block questionable material.

Similar filtering systems are on the market, and Soular said they offer more freedom to users than blocking content altogether.

His comments prompted a debate among members of the audience about how Biblical references to incest and savage killing might be interpreted, and raised questions about the role wireless carriers might play as content gatekeepers or providers.

Some on the panel said wireless service providers might even find themselves in the position of actively passing along pornographic material or gambling opportunities to subscribers, and raising money by charging for such services.

“Carriers will have to weigh social responsibility with competitive advantage,” said Richard Ekstrand, CEO of Rural Cellular Corp. in Alexandria, Minn. He predicted that “at least one carrier in a territory with several carriers” will want to offer some objectionable services, forcing others to want to keep up for competitive advantage.

“It’s going to be a moral dilemma and a challenge,” he added.

Some carriers are already acting as gatekeepers, using “walled-garden” approaches that allow users to reach only those Web sites with financial agreements with the carrier. Others might allow open surfing as an option, although this is limited today by the way Web addresses are typed with a keypad or a stylus on a handheld screen.

Lynn Charytan, an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington who works with carriers that have cases before the Federal Communications Commission, said carriers already have the right under federal law to restrict what material reaches their subscribers. “If you don’t want [material] to show up on screens, it doesn’t have to,” she said.

Federal laws also make it illegal to make gambling information available to users on the Internet, wired or wireless. But it becomes impractical to prosecute offenders when they are based somewhere outside the country, Charytan said.