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Bringing media classification into the digital era

Australia’s classification system has been updated to ensure the audience can judge whether content is appropriate for them. Flickr/kennymatic

Media classification in Australia is being dragged into the digital world. At the moment it’s based on analog legislation, unsuited for today’s convergent media. But proposals unveiled today will transform the system, helping the public to judge what content they, and their children, should engage with.

Laws have operated around the principle of classification since the 1970s, and a comprehensive review of that system has not been undertaken since the ALRC’s 1991 report into censorship and classification.

That report played a key role in shaping the Classification Act and the current activities of the Classification Board.

Reviewing legislation

At the request of the Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, the Australian Law Reform Commission commenced a Review of the National Classification Scheme in March this year.

This review has established that the current classification scheme has involved a series of ad hoc and incremental responses to much bigger transformations in the media landscape.

The ALRC considers that the major principles that have guided media classification in Australia remain important ideas.

We must continue to balance the rights of adults to make informed media choices with the protection of children. Where necessary, there can also be a need to restrict access to some media content on the basis of community standards.

Challenge of the internet

The change that stands out above all else is the rise of the internet and large-scale access to high-speed broadband.

It previously made sense to think about discrete media industries, which produced content only accessible from particular devices such as radios and TVs, or in particular places such as cinemas. But we now live in a world of pervasive media convergence, where the same content can be accessed across multiple devices, or multiple forms of content accessed from the same device.

Whereas most media were largely national, and it was relatively easy to trace media content available back to particular Australian-based distributors, media globalisation has now complicated the communications landscape enormously.

Media convergence

Responses to the ALRC Issues Paper confirmed that many stakeholders – particularly those from industry – view the current classification system as ill-equipped to address the challenges.

Lines of responsibility are fragmented, and costs and regulatory burdens are historically based rather than responsive to community standards and expectations.

Failure to reform the classification framework runs the risk of damaging Australian creative industries in an increasingly globalised media environment.

The proposals

The ALRC Discussion Paper released today contains 44 proposals relating to a proposed new National Classification Scheme.

It suggests that at its heart will sit a new Classification of Media Content Act. It will identify what content needs to be classified, who should do it, and who has responsibility for breaches of the guidelines.

The proposed framework envisages a greater role for industry in classifying content, and the development of co-regulatory codes, along the lines of those which have operated in the television industry for almost 20 years.

There are also measures proposed to remove the “double handling” of media content – the need to reclassify films and TV programs when they are re-released as DVDs.

The aim is to allow regulators to focus on “higher level” classifications, such as R18+ material and content that may be refused classification (RC).

The ALRC proposes harmonisation of the current complex array of classification guidelines for films, TV programs, computer games, publications and online content around a common set of markings and criteria.

Age-based classification

In particular, we also propose more age-based delineation of classification categories in order to provide parents with better information about what content is age appropriate for their children.

This involves the introduction of a new T 13+ category – T for “teen”, replacing M – as well as a PG 8+ category and a specialist “C” category for specifically children’s content.

This will make the current blurry distinctions between the PG, M and MA15+ categories clearer, meeting the important consumer information role performed by media classification.

For the ALRC inquiry to date, a very significant driver of public participation has been the absence of an R18+ classification for computer games.

Its absence was a classic case study in pre-internet forms of regulation of digital media, based upon a contentious understanding of the nature of interactivity and how it may impact upon players.

Across the board

One of the principles that the ALRC has been developing is that of platform neutrality. By this we mean that the focus of classification should be on content rather than the media platform used for its delivery.

The challenge is that the internet operates very differently from the analog mass communications platforms.

Content is dynamic and converged. Distribution is global rather than nationally based, and media users are creators and distributors of content and not just its passive recipients.

Adapting to the digital world

We also live in a time of rapid acceleration of digital media innovation and high-speed broadband, delivering not just more content, but content across a multiplicity of platforms.

As more of this material comes into the home, it blurs distinctions between public and private, as well as restrictions on access based on age verification.

Following on from the review, it is proposed that ongoing research be undertaken into the standards of the Australian community in relation to the classification of media content.

The intention is to ground media classification in a better understanding of what Australians actually think, and value about a classification system, in a context of rapid technological and market change.

The Commission encourages submissions in response to its questions and proposals before 18th November 2011.

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