This is the first comprehensive review of censorship and classification since the ALRC report, Censorship Procedure, published in 1991 (ALRC Report 55). That report recommended a legislative framework that would enable the Commonwealth, states and territories to take a national approach to classification. Its recommendations formed the basis of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth)(Classification Act), and what is commonly referred to as the National Classification Scheme.

Censorship Procedure advanced classification policy in Australia by recommending a cooperative scheme between the Commonwealth, states and territories, and identified the important role to be played by an independent Classification Board and Classification Review Board. However, it was developed in a ‘pre-internet’ environment, when the wider implications of media convergence for content regulation generally were not yet understood.

In the context of ever greater convergence of media technologies, platforms and services, and more media being accessed from the home through high-speed broadband networks, the need for a comprehensive review of classification laws and regulations became apparent. In providing the reference for this Inquiry to the ALRC, the Attorney-General had regard to the rapid pace of technological change in media available to, and consumed by, the Australian community, and the needs of the community in this evolving technological environment.

The major principles that have informed media classification in Australia—such as adults being free to make their own informed media choices, and children being protected from material that may cause harm—continue to be relevant and important. While a convergent media environment presents major new challenges, there continues to be a community expectation that certain media content will be accompanied by classification information, based on decisions that reflect community standards.

Inquiry in context

This Inquiry was one of a number of related inquiries taking place in Australia. The Convergence Review was established through the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) in 2011 to review Australia’s media and communications legislation in the context of media convergence, due to report in the first quarter of 2012.

Other significant inquiries and reviews relevant to this Inquiry included: public consultation on the introduction of an R 18+ classification for computer games; a review of measures to increase accountability and transparency for internet service provider (ISP) filtering of Refused Classification (RC) material; a Senate Committee review of Australia’s classification system; inquiries into cyber-safety and outdoor advertising; the Independent Media Inquiry into newspapers and online news publications; and a proposed national cultural policy.

The law reform brief

Law reform recommendations cannot be based upon assertion or assumption and need to be anchored in an appropriate evidence base. A major aspect of building the evidence base to support the formulation of ALRC recommendations for reform is community consultation, acknowledging that widespread community consultation is a hallmark of best practice law reform.[1] Under the provisions of the Australian Law Reform Commission Act 1996 (Cth), the ALRC ‘may inform itself in any way it thinks fit’ for the purposes of reviewing or considering anything that is the subject of an inquiry.[2]

The process for each law reform project may differ according to the scope of inquiry, the range of key stakeholders, the complexity of the laws under review, and the period of time allotted for the inquiry. For each inquiry the ALRC determines a consultation strategy in response to its particular subject matter and likely stakeholder interest groups. The nature and extent of this engagement is normally determined by the subject matter of the reference—and the timeframe in which the inquiry must be completed under the Terms of Reference. While the exact procedure is tailored to suit each inquiry, the ALRC usually works within a particular framework, outlined on the ALRC’s website.[3]

Problems with the current framework

A strong underlying theme of many submissions to this Inquiry was that the current classification scheme does not deal adequately with the challenges of media convergence and the volume of media content now available to Australians. The Classification Act was described as ‘an analogue piece of legislation in a digital world’, and there were difficulties identified in how the Classification Act interfaces with the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth), which covers broadcast and online media.

Respondents drew attention to aspects of the classification and content regulation framework that are failing to meet intended goals, and that create confusion for media content industries and the wider community. Among the problems identified were:

  • inadequate regulatory response to changes in technology and community expectations;
  • lack of clarity about whether films and computer games distributed online must be classified;
  • ‘double handling’ of media content, with films and television programs being classified twice for different formats (eg, 2D and 3D) and different platforms (eg, broadcast television and DVD);
  • concerns that the scope of the RC category is too broad, and that too much content is prohibited online, including some content that may not be prohibited in other formats, such as magazines;
  • inconsistent state and territory laws concerning restrictions and prohibitions on the sale of certain media content, such as sexually explicit films and magazines;
  • low compliance with classification laws in some industries, particularly the adult industry, and correspondingly low enforcement; and
  • the need to clarify the responsibilities of the Classification Board and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) and other Australian Government agencies and departments involved with classification and media content regulation.

The context of media convergence

This Inquiry provided the opportunity to reform Australia’s classification laws to meet the challenges of a convergent media environment. Developments associated with media convergence include:

  • increased household and business access to high-speed broadband internet;
  • the digitisation of media products and services, as seen with the rise of YouTube, Apple iTunes and other global digital media platforms;
  • the convergence of media platforms and services, for both established and new media;
  • the globalisation of media platforms, content and services, making nationally-based regulations more difficult to apply;
  • the acceleration of innovation, characteristic of a more knowledge-based economy;
  • the rise of user-created content, and a shift in the nature of media users from audiences to participants;
  • greater media user empowerment, due to greater diversity of choices of media content and platforms and the increased ability to personalise media; and
  • the blurring of lines between public and private media consumption, as well as the ability to apply age-based access restrictions, as more media is accessed from the home through converged media platforms.

Piecemeal regulatory responses to changes in technologies, markets and consumer behaviour have created uncertainty for both consumers and industry, and raise questions about where responsibilities lie for driving change. Current legislation is characterised by what the ACMA has described as ‘broken concepts’: laws built upon platform-based media regulation, that become less and less effective in a convergent media environment.

[1] B Opeskin, ‘Measuring Success’ in B Opeskin and D Weisbrot (eds), The Promise of Law Reform (2005) 202.

[2]Australian Law Reform Commission Act 1996 (Cth) s 38.

[3] Australian Law Reform Commission, Law Reform Process <> at 30 November 2011.