Smartphone App Rating System Proceeds Without Apple, Google

Mobile applications for smartphones and tablet computers may carry new ratings for violence and sexual content under a wireless industry-sponsored system awaiting backing from Apple Inc. and Google Inc.

Under the policy unveiled today by CTIA-The Wireless Association, mobile apps for games and social networking will be rated for age-appropriate content on a five-point scale from “everyone” to “adults only.” The voluntary program will be operated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which has run similar ratings for computer and video games since 1994.

The app program is aimed at helping parents monitor children’s increasing use of wireless technology, an issue drawing lawmakers’ attention this year. About 52 percent of children ages 8 and under have access to mobile devices including smartphones and tablets, according to a survey of parents by San Francisco-based children’s advocacy group Common Sense Media.

“The mobile application rating system is easy for parents and consumers to understand while being simple, fast and free for developers,” Steve Largent, president of Washington-based CTIA, said at a news conference. He said the move helps avoid “unnecessary government regulation.”

Apple, maker of the iPhone and iPad, and Google, whose Android software is the most widely used mobile operating software in the U.S., aren’t taking part in the program and have their own ratings systems.

Android Market

“We’ve put a lot of effort into Android Market’s rating system, which now works well globally,” Christopher Katsaros, a Google spokesman, said in an e-mail. “While we support other systems, we think it’s best for Android users and developers to stick with Android’s existing ratings.”

Tom Neumayr, an Apple spokesman, declined to comment. The Apple App Store currently offers 500,000 apps, while Google’s Android Market has more than 300,000.

CTIA isn’t concerned that Apple and Google aren’t participating, David Diggs, CTIA vice president for wireless Internet development, said in an interview. The CTIA and company ratings systems have more in common than not, and the goal is to get information to consumers, Diggs said.

Revenue from U.S. mobile application stores may reach almost $9.4 billion in 2015, up from $2.1 billion in 2010, according to Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm. The number of U.S. consumer mobile app downloads will climb to almost 21.9 billion in 2015 from 2.8 billion in 2010, Yankee Group data show.

Online Questionnaire

Participating in the new ratings system are Microsoft Corp., AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and U.S. Cellular Corp. Of those, only Microsoft, AT&T and Verizon Wireless now operate app stores, CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey said. All the participating companies except Microsoft sell mobile phones that use Google’s Android software.

Under the CTIA program, developers submitting mobile applications will answer online questions including whether the app includes violence and sexual content, contains social networking features and permits sharing of user location data. Once the questionnaire is completed, the app will receive its rating within seconds, CTIA said in a statement.

The ratings span from suitable for ages six and older to restricted to 18 years and older. Developers can appeal a rating if they don’t agree with it. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, developer of the ratings system, said it will routinely test the most popular applications and monitor consumer complaints.

Lawmakers’ Scrutiny

The explosive spread of mobile devices has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers concerned that the technology raises privacy issues. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said apps “have to be regulated” during a May hearing that explored how apps collect data on users, including their location.

“Our concern with this system is still the fact that it is industry-run and driven,” James Steyer, chief executive officer of Common Sense Media, said about the new program in an e-mail. Common Sense favors “third-party, independent reviews to truly help parents,” he said. The group has rated almost 1,500 mobile apps according to its own standards.