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ESRB to rate apps sold by mobile carriers

November 28, 2011 |  9:01 pm

With more than 200,000 Android applications and 500,000 for iPhones, the app market has a Wild West, anything-goes flavor -- fun for downloaders, but anxiety-producing for parents.

The wireless trade group CTIA on Tuesday addressed those concerns by teaming up with the Entertainment Software Rating Board to create new parent-friendly ratings for mobile apps.

ESRB_app_splashThe ESRB is already the de facto ratings group for the vast majority of video games, with its ratings prominently plastered on game boxes sold at Best Buy, Target, GameStop and other major retailers. For apps, the ESRB plans to use the same age-based ratings categories it deploys for disc-based games: Everyone, Everyone 10 years and older, Teen, Mature and Adult Only. 

Major carriers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular, as well as Microsoft Corp., whose Windows operating systems power a small percentage of mobile phones, have agreed to use the ratings for applications that are sold from the devices they sell.

The carriers, which sell apps via their own storefronts -- much as Apple Inc.'s iTunes sells music -- are expected to roll out the ratings sometime next year. Each carrier will decide for its own store whether the ratings will be mandatory for some or all apps, or entirely voluntary.

The agreement does not include iPhone apps, which are monitored by Apple. 

It's unclear how well the system will work within the world of applications, which are made by large companies as well as thousands of small, garage developers. The ESRB system will ask developers a number of questions about their applications (such as whether there is foul language used), and assign a computer-generated rating. The organization will spot-check apps to make sure developers have answered truthfully.

But some consumer advocates are skeptical.

"We’re glad that the industry has finally realized that mobile apps require a ratings system to help parents find quality, appropriate apps for their kids, just like the movie, TV, and game industries do," said Jim Steyer, chief executive of the San Francisco consumer advocacy group Common Sense Media. "However, we always have concerns when an industry presents its own solution for a ratings system, because it’s tough to ensure an insider system can be both objective and independent."

Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, argues that the information, which also will include descriptions of what's in the application such as sexual innuendoes and depictions of drug use, will be helpful to parents. 

"When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of apps and the range of content is wide, you need tools that provide consumers with information," Vance said. "With more and more kids using handheld mobile devices, parents in particular would like to have a tool they can trust and help them determine what apps get downloaded onto a device."

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 -- Alex Pham

Photo: Screen shot of the ESRB application courtesy of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. 

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