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Helping Parents, Cable Use ‘Common Sense’

Common Sense Media founder James Steyer has partnered with major cable operators to provide age-based and educational ratings and reviews for content on-air and online. Among the groups clients are Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications.

But Common Sense does much more, including advocating for privacy protections for children and fpr getting broadband to low-income families.

Steyer talked with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about his cable partnerships and offered some common-sense (and Common Sense) advice to cable operators.

MCN: What is your charter at Common Sense Media?

James Steyer: We rate, educate and advocate. We are the dominant consumer platform in the United States for ratings and reviews for parents and consumers. We have 55 million annual users for our ratings and reviews and parenting advice.

On the education side, we have 90,000 member schools. We provide digital literacy and digital literacy curricula to all of those schools as well as the first educational ratings system.

And on the advocacy side, we are the largest child-advocacy group in the United States.

MCN: You have a number of cable distribution partners …

JS: Yes, we distribute our ratings and reviews over all the major cable and satellite television [operators] like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, DirecTV, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. And that is “nutritional labeling” for media.

So, for example, Comcast on their Xfinity program does an excellent job of integrating their Common Sense ratings into the Xfinity box, and into their video-on-demand channels, as do Time Warner Cable and Cox.

MCN: You don’t believe in censoring content?

JS: Our motto is sanity, not censorship. I am a professor at Stanford. I teach First Amendment law, civil rights and civil liberties.  We give you the information, and we let you decide.

The truth is, kids don’t need TV to watch TV anymore. Whether it’s Netflix or YouTube or Hulu, streaming-video websites and apps mean that kids and families can watch whatever and whenever they want to. So it’s a fascinating time in the media and technology business and the implications are huge for kids and families. It is a fundamental change across the board in the way kids consume media.

Because we are the primary provider of nonpartisan information to almost 60 million consumers, we’re in a position to help them find the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff.

MCN: Tell us about your policy advocacy.

JS: We are big players on privacy, both consumer and student privacy. We developed and passed major legislation in California in the last two years [Common Sense Media is based in San Francisco], both around student privacy, and now there are federal efforts and other states copying the California law. We also did the “eraser button” legislation in California two years ago. [That law made California the first state to require websites to allow consumers younger than 18 to remove their own postings from those sites, and to clearly inform minors on how to do so.]

We worked very closely with [former Federal Trade Commission chairman] Jon Leibowitz on the rewriting of the COPPA [children’s online privacy protection] rules. We hired Joni Lupovitz, who was the chief of staff under Leibowitz to be one of the heads of our D.C. Office.  Danny Weiss, [California Democratic House member] George Miller’s former chief of staff is the head of our D.C. office.

MCN: Are you pushing for a federal version of the online “eraser button,” too?

JS: Yes.

MCN: Can you explain briefly what the eraser button does?

JS: The eraser button means that anyone under the age of 18 can go to companies and ask that any of the content that they have posted be erased from their platform. It gives them the right, by law, to do that.

MCN: And that is targeted to Internet-service providers or the edge providers that control the platforms?

JS: Everybody — ISPs as well as content providers.

MCN: Why is that an important right to have?

JS: Because privacy is a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  And privacy is a fundamental right for every kid and family in this country. So, protecting privacy rights, whether it is at home or at school is a critically important issue. And we have been the leader on that.

MCN: You have been active in getting broadband to schools.

JS: I was the co-chair of the LEAD Commission appointed by [then-Federal Communications Commission chair] Julius Genachowski  and [then-Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan to give the country a plan for technology in schools. 

We [the commission] came up with the plan that President Obama adopted under the name ConnectEd. And we were the leading advocates for the E-rate 2.0 [initiative] last year with [current FCC chairman] Tom Wheeler. Now we are pushing efforts for broadband for low-income families as a compliment to the big E-rate victory.

MCN: Which begs a question. How is the cable industry doing getting broadband to low-income families?

JS: It is a big challenge and a big focus this year in our D.C. office. We call it the homework gap. Now that all the classrooms are going to be wired, thanks to the ConnectED and the E-rate 2.0 program which we created and sponsored at the FCC, you shouldn’t have a homework gap where kids get assignments in school and are able to use laptops at school but when they get home don’t have any broadband access and can’t do their homework.

Comcast has their Internet Essentials programs, and there are some other modest efforts, but truthfully this needs to be industry-wide and every low-income family should have access to broadband. It is good for education, it’s good for jobs and it’s good for the country.

MCN: Would that mean expanding programs like Internet Essentials?

JS: I think there will be some interesting things at the FCC about how we can expand broadband and connectivity for all families and all children in this country. And I think we can work with chairman Wheeler and the other commissioners to make that happen. We are very optimistic we can make big progress on the homework gap this year. 

MCN: Do you have any common-sense advice to cable operators on helping kids navigate media in terms of privacy?

JS: No. 1, give consumers simple, easy to understand information about their choices, which they do by being partners with Common Sense.  Second, play a role in educating consumers about critical issues like privacy and be proactive in doing that. Third, understand that all media and technology are educational, so play an even greater role and devote even more resources to the healthy, successful education in this country. We live in a 24/7 media and technology environment where large cable and Internet and broadcast companies play a huge role in everyone’s life, so that the more pro-kid and family they are the better.

MCN: And pro-family doesn’t mean not putting on Game of Thrones because it is violent?

JS: No, it just means making sure that those are for appropriate audiences and making sure that there massive consumer information at your fingertips so you know Game of Thrones is not OK for your eight-year-old. No, our motto is “sanity not censorship,” which is why cable and satellite and Internet guys partner with us is because they want to give consumers information so that they can decide what is appropriate for their children, because not every kid in a family is the same.

Having the big broadcast, cable and satellite guys as distribution partners is critical to our work and they have been very good distribution partners.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.