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S'pore app stores opt for self-policing

Stakeholders say rating system a la Google's Android Market the way to go for app stores, but local telcos for now still look to filter apps based on official and self-regulation.

Despite Google's recent move to introduce ratings for apps published on its Android Market, telcos in Singapore prefer regulatory obligations as well as a voluntary code of practice to filter objectionable content, which does not call for developers or store owners to rate apps.

Google last month announced that app developers that wish to publish their new or updated apps on the two-year-old Android Market are required to rate their new or updated applications either "All", "Pre-Teen", "Teen" or "Mature". The move took effect on Nov. 30, according to a blog post.

Under this requirement, unrated applications are by default labeled as "Mature".

While Google has indicated that the move was in response to user feedback about wanting more information on apps, the Android Market has been criticized by Apple CEO Steve Jobs for easy access to pornography.

At least one local app store owner, however, has no plans for now to follow in the footsteps of the Internet giant. According to M1's general manager of corporate communications Chua Swee Kiat, the company uses a voluntary code of practice to assess apps it offers in the M1 app store.

The Voluntary Code for Self-regulation of Mobile Content was jointly established in 2006 by M1 and fellow local mobile operators SingTel and StarHub. The purpose of the code, explained Chua in an e-mail, is to help protect minors from accessing undesirable content from the Internet via mobile phones.

The Code, he noted, works on the general principles that mobile content should also be consistent with material that is available on an unrestricted basis, from other mainstream media to the general public. "In line with this, content that depicts sex, explicit nudity, extreme violence, or incites racial and religious intolerance, is expressly prohibited."

When asked if M1 will introduce ratings following Google's move, the M1 executive said: "We adhere to the voluntary code for self-regulation of mobile content which does not provide for ratings. If apps and content do not comply with the code, they will not be [offered on the M1 app store]."

Regulation no magic bullet
Dylan Tan, corporate communications manager at SingTel, said the company closely monitors the apps in its app store. Before any app is loaded into the SingTel Appzone, the carrier ensures that it complies fully with government regulatory guidelines; if it does not fulfill this requirement, it will not be made available in the app store, he noted in an e-mail.

Mobile applications in the island-state are regulated under the Media Development Authority's Class License scheme.

Citing Singapore's Internet Code of Practice, Yuvarani Thangavelu, MDA's deputy director of development policy, said mobile content that are objectionable to public interest, public morality, public order, public security and national harmony are prohibited by applicable Singapore laws. App stores will be asked to remove mobile apps that violate such standards from their platforms, she said in an e-mail.

Bryan Tan, director of Keystone Law Corporation, described this as the "light brush approach [where] authorities require whatever that is objectionable to be removed".

The regulation of mobile apps should be similar to Internet content, Tan added in an e-mail. "The buck stops with the developer but an app store could be asked [by the authorities] to remove apps which are deemed objectionable and its only responsibility is then to adhere to such instruction," he elaborated.

Tan pointed out that the MDA, which controls Internet content using the Class License scheme, can wield this stick if necessary when it comes to mobile apps.

Nevertheless, the MDA believes that regulation alone is not sufficient to protect youths from inappropriate mobile content, said Thangavelu. Educating the public is also an important factor, she said, adding the government agency works with partners from the public, private and people sectors to implement outreach programs that promote the responsible and discerning use of media.

Thangavelu also noted the government organization continually monitors the relevance of existing codes and initiates consultations with the industry and community to refine or enhance existing standards when needed.

Content ratings logical in long term
A developer and an Android supporter ZDNet Asia spoke welcomed Google's new classification, pointing out that it would help users locate the content they want.

In an e-mail, Nicky Wong, founder of mobile app development company Infindo, opined that a rating system is a "good move" for any app store, because in the long run the content will become more complex and the variety of apps will be greater. Such a measure would help end-users look for the right content in a crowded app market, he said.

Wong also disagreed that developers will find the need to assign specific ratings for their apps restrictive, saying that he personally is not bothered by the requirement.

Android user Chan Rui Ming also voiced support for the Android Market's new rating system. He noted that the move may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to Job's comment, but any app store that is expanding and maturing its business will logically need to classify its entire stock of apps to cater to the different interests of different users. It is no different from the need to have movie or video game ratings, the postgraduate student said, adding that ratings help users make a more informed choice of whether to download an app or not.

Apple's App Store in 2009 launched its own content rating system, which has four classifications based on age: "4+", "9+", "12+" and "17+".