Off the Map: Cultural laws

Our world is full of laws, rules, regulations and guidelines that shape modern societies in every corner of the globe. Human society has a long history of instituting laws, stretching all the way back to the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians, who felt it important to devise sets of rules that were considered beneficial for the greater good of everyone. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylonia is likely one of the more well-known examples, not to mention religious codes such as the Bible and the Talmud. From those ancient times to the present day, our functioning societies and cultures have been built upon a wide array of overt laws and implicit mores that have fundamentally shaped humanity.

Most of the laws with which we’re familiar are focused on issues of public safety and maintaining the peace, as well as a wide range of issues that might best be labeled as “practical” — and I’ll avoid the debates over specific laws that may be perceived as anything but practical; I’ll stay with the higher-level discussion. Practical laws basically help our societies to function properly and smoothly, whether it’s a matter of vehicle traffic, personal interactions, commerce or international relations.

And then there’s another form of law that pertains to the control of content, the specific category of laws with which I’m interested for the purpose of this column. Many of us are familiar with the more common content-related laws, such as those pertaining to pornography of various kinds and copyright laws covering originality. Most of these are intended to either protect youth from content for which they’re not ready or they’re intended to simply protect intellectual property rights. But within this subset of content-related laws is what I’m really after: the less well-defined — but no less real — set of content-related laws that pertain to the sensitivities resulting from specific cultural worldviews and geopolitical imaginations.

I think it’s better explained by example than by discourse, so let me illustrate. As I’ve mentioned in this column previously, maps are a volatile content type because some governments maintain very specific requirements for how their territory must appear on a map. Whether or not they actually possess that territory is irrelevant; their local perception or political stance or geopolitical imagination takes precedence under their jurisdiction. For example, in China and India this specific requirement for conformity is codified as law, so if a company fails to portray the country correctly in its content, it could face serious repercussions. In the case of China, this means showing Taiwan as part of China, along with the disputed territories of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, and all of the islands in the entire South China Sea. In India, this equates to showing the entire Kashmir region as wholly a part of India.

Unfortunately, these types of laws are not obvious to most content developers or even to many lawyers and legal specialists unless they were specifically trained in international law. The problem with how such laws have been managed is that many companies don’t discover them until their products are submitted to a country’s customs department for review. Oftentimes, because the local rules may not even be codified as clearly and empirically as possible, the decision of “appropriateness” could depend on a specific government agent’s personal interpretation of the intent of the content regulation. Despite the free speech protections of its First Amendment, even the United States maintains protective legal instruments such as the concept called “prior restraint.” Prior restraint is a government injunction that can be used to censor the release of content that may, for example, threaten national security or be socially inflammatory; under such circumstances, the content never has a chance for debate as it’s vigorously suppressed.

The lack of clarity around content regulations is changing in a positive direction, albeit slowly and only in some sectors. Films have had a form of age-appropriateness rating for decades and many people are familiar with the US system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. In the video game industry, many countries have similar rating organizations that are responsible for specifically checking games for appropriate content. In North America, we have the Entertainment Software Ratings Board that operates as a voluntary but universally used system (it’s a de facto requirement to sell a game via any retailer in the United States, but is not an actual legal requirement). The Pan European Game Information system in Europe, Computer Entertainment Rating Organization in Japan and the Game Rating Board in South Korea are comparable ratings organizations in other locales.

Rating boards are really helpful to content developers in that they provide some form of guidance on what may or may not be locally acceptable. One of their biggest drawbacks is that they are often focused on the “big three” content issues: profanity, sex and violence. It’s rare that they’ll delve into deeper issues involving cultural allegories, political cynicism, religious symbology and so forth. I’ve inquired of some of the rating organizations to learn if they will do so in the future, but most are insufficiently funded to increase their level of scrutiny. This leaves the content creator to either proactively discern those risks beyond the big three or take a chance with local sensitivities.

Beyond actual laws and voluntarily (but effectively mandatory) reviews, we get into the realm of social mores and cultural practices that are often locally assumed to be implicit, or at least obvious to outsiders. Yet many of these assumptions are beyond the reach of most external individuals, unless they’ve read extensively about a specific local culture or have spent time in the country. Few content designers have that opportunity for the sake of deepening their design considerations, so it’s another area that often shocks companies when their content has problems entering a particular market.

One relevant legal concept related to this is the notion of blasphemy. Blasphemy is used in the religious context, such as the new United Nations resolutions against the “defamation” of religions. Various countries have applied different levels of blasphemy statutes, but some are more direct when their cultural assumptions are based more on sacred principles over secular. For example, Saudi Arabia’s culture is highly structured around the tenets of Islam, and thus corporate practices and content are held accountable to these religious principles. The Grand Mufti heads the Council of Senior Ulema, which is the body of religious scholars that make decisions on content-related issues and their appropriateness for the country. Their function is coordinated with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which often has influence over publishing companies to monitor what is being produced.

In addition to content laws pertaining to religion, a range of other regulations that affect various kinds of content also exists. There is a set of laws known as “heritage statutes” that would prevent, say, the selling of a picture of the Eiffel Tower without permission from the French government. The legal category of moral rights, somewhat similar to copyright, would prevent someone from selling a picture of the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei. And there’s even trademark law that can be specifically applied to flags of various kinds to prevent misuse or mimicry.

In the end, as the plethora of content laws and complexities of potential litigation start to become overwhelming, perhaps it helps to remind us to put a little more love into the love-hate relationship many people have with the legal profession!