The filtering debate: Should you be able to censor movies in your own home?

Services like VidAngel and ClearPlay, which want to offer at home filtering options for movies, are causing a bit of controversy.

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I don’t have kids to raise or students to teach. But I still understand the frustration that comes with finding appropriate movies that a family can watch together—even at home on the small screen where rental and streaming options abound.

My youngest sister and I have always been very close, despite our 8-year age difference. We love spending time together, whether the minutes are filled with baking cookies, or watching TV shows and movies together. But movie nights have always been tough, because I often need to do a lot of front-end research to make sure what we’re about to watch is not just good entertainment, but appropriate for her age.

As a result, I’ve spent tons of my time looking through “family friendly” content categories on streaming services, and then looking up rating guides to decipher exactly what we’re about to see. But there are so many times we end up watching nothing, or the same old movie because the new releases available to rent don’t fit the bill for one reason or another. It might be as simple as some bad language, or as complicated as sexual innuendo and violence (the level of which is hard to gauge without seeing it yourself). Ratings like PG or PG-13 are helpful in a very general way, but you still need to dig for the specifics if you want to know what kind of violence, or what is considered “strong language.” (The website commonsensemedia.org is a helpful resource for parents researching these particulars.)

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Sometimes, even after that research, the solution is to be ready with your trigger finger on the fast-forward button to skip over explicit scenes—this is the method in my house more often than not. Other times, the solution is to stick to old favorites, or films you’ve already seen.

But what if a company did all that research for you, and all you had to do was “opt out” of certain scenes or press a button that would bleep the swear words? Well, companies called ClearPlay, which was founded in 1998, and VidAngel, which launched an online rental business in 2015, both had this very idea. But not everyone seems to agree that these types of services should be allowed, and VidAngel in particular has recently moved to the center of this debate.

But first, let’s talk about how the VidAngel service works: With the tagline “watch movies however the bleep you want,” VidAngel rents movies with the ability to filter your film for things like graphic violence, mature sexual content, and profane language. The site provides a large variety of films—boasting both new releases and all the IMDB top 100 films—with some rentals allowing you to select more than one hundred possible filters. The filters can be very specific, allowing the customer to filter for all mature content or even just one specific word if they want to. To see how it works in more detail (and maybe get a chuckle or two), watch the company’s advertisement below:

Currently, the business model goes around licensing laws by buying the DVDs and decrypting them—similar to how Redbox operates; the digital copy is then sold as a rental to consumers online. VidAngel’s filtering is considered legal under the Family Movie Act as long as each movie is an authorized copy, watched in the privacy of the home, and not made into a permanent filtered copy. To allow for these rules, VidAngel users buy a movie for $20, select the filters they desire, watch it, and then are reimbursed $19 when they “return” the film within 24 hours—making it a one-dollar movie rental service.

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If you were hoping to rent something from a service like this tonight, though, you’ll need to press pause on that thought: Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm, and Warner Bros. Entertainment have all filed suit against VidAngel claiming the service isn’t properly licensed to stream the content to consumers. (This makes the argument more about proper licensing and distribution than about whether or not consumers have the right to filter content in their homes). Federal courts told VidAngel to take the content down for now, so currently consumers can create an account, but cannot use the service. The VidAngel company says that they plan to take this case to the Supreme Court if necessary. Note, however, that ClearPlay, which mainly works with content streamed through GooglePlay, is still considered legal and available. Both services, however, rely on the Family Movie Act of 2005.

In the video below, VidAngel makes their case for why the service they want to provide should be made legal, in their own words:

So it seems the issue has become a lot more complicated than just “Do I have the right to filter content or not?” Personally, though, I appreciate the end goal of these services: to give me, the consumer, the power to filter content. I’ve always had to censor what I watch with my sister—a task that hasn’t gotten any easier as we’ve grown older—and I believe consumers should have the right to control the content they consume in the privacy of their own homes so that we can all enjoy films how we see fit. I’ll be waiting with interest to see what the courts decide.

What do you think, parents? Do you wish you could filter content for your kids with a service like ClearPlay or VidAngel? Or will you keep fast-forwarding and/or forgoing rentals containing content that you’d rather your kids didn’t see? Let us know in the comments below!

Grace Cooper
Grace Cooper

A student at the University of Pittsburgh, Grace Cooper is studying Nonfiction Writing and Psychology. A writer for Verily and other publications, she dreams of moving to New York City to further pursue a career in journalism.

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