Determining who should classify content

7.19 In Chapter 6, the ALRC recommends that feature films, television programs, and computer games likely to be classified higher than MA 15+, that are both likely to have a significant Australian audience, and made and distributed on a commercial basis, should be classified before content providers sell, screen, provide online, or otherwise distribute them to the Australian public. While this is a narrowly defined segment of content, it is still not practical, efficient or necessary to require all of this content to be classified by one classification body.

7.20 The ALRC has applied a ‘platform neutral’ approach to the division of responsibility for content classification. That is, recommendations about who classifies what content do not turn on whether the content is broadcast, provided online or provided as a physical hardcopy product. For example, the ALRC is not recommending that all physical products distributed or accessible offline must be classified by the Board while content broadcast or available online may be classified by industry. Nor is the ALRC proposing that certain forms of content must be classified by the Board, because it has a greater impact than other content.

7.21 The following section outlines the key factors that were considered in determining who should have responsibility for making classification decisions under a new National Classification Scheme. The ALRC recommends a significant shift in responsibility for classification decision-making to industry, but maintains that there remains an important role for an independent classification decision-making body.

Volume of content

7.22 As discussed in Chapter 6, the volume of media content available today inevitably restricts what practically can be classified. The volume of content that must be classified may also be too large for one entity to classify efficiently.

7.23 Submissions noted that, with the ‘huge range of content being produced both online and offline, it is economically and practically unrealistic that a government body be charged with the classification of all content’.[7] The quantity of content necessitates industry involvement in classifying the content it publishes—if classification is the desirable outcome.[8] For example, one submission observed that:

Where the volume of content is too large for a classification body to adequately address every article, suitable industry codes are more effective and practical.[9]

7.24 The Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association (AHEDA) also suggested that DVD distributors should be allowed to classify children’s content, as the ‘amount of pre-school aged children’s specific TV programming is immense and the cost to classify is great’.[10]

Efficiency, cost and administration

7.25 The AGD charges fees for Board classification decision-making on a cost-recovery basis. The Board model of classification is resource intensive and therefore also costly. Financial and administrative burdens may therefore be a reasonable consideration in determining what content should be classified by whom. As Telstra explained:

the economics of the provision of online content are very different to that of publishing, film or television. In fact, given the costs of preparing a formal classification application and the scale of the classification fees charged by the Classification Board ($810–$2040 per assessment plus), it is likely that requiring large scale formal classification by the Classification Board would make the provision of most online content by Australian providers uneconomic.[11]

7.26 A benefit of industry classification is that it may generate cost savings and other efficiencies, such as reducing the time taken to classify products, and accounting for classification considerations in the content development and production process. This is particularly important for independent developers and small providers of niche products.

7.27 Submissions referred to the speed of classification and familiarity with content as factors that supported industry classification.[12] Given the volume of media content and the dynamic nature of online content, submissions observed that the Board would not necessarily be able to keep pace with certain digital content-generating industries.[13] It was also suggested that industry should classify content where there are scheduling constraints and critical deadlines for publishing particular content.[14]

7.28 Industry classification may have particular advantages in relation to media content that can be classified quickly, especially where that content is published in large volumes and its publication is subject to tight time frames. Efficiency of classification may therefore be another useful way to decide what content should be classified by industry.

Likely classification and nature of content

7.29 The features of particular content are also useful for distinguishing what the Board or industry should classify. For example, submissions suggested that ‘low impact content’ or material that is not likely to be classified in a legally-restricted category could be classified by industry.[15]

7.30 Other submissions argued that a varied range of content could be classified by industry. For example, the Australian Christian Lobby, stated that:

media such as publications, music and sound recordings, websites, and so on could be self regulated when the content is likely to receive a rating below MA15+. Anything that is likely to be rated MA15+ or above should be referred to the Classification Board.[16]

7.31 AHEDA asserted that industry should classify all content, except for content likely to be classified R 18+ and X 18+, because such content is high in impact and is often controversial in nature.[17]

7.32 Some submissions suggested that, where the classification of content may be straightforward, it may not need to be classified by the Board, for example, children’s content.[18] Other submissions supported industry classification of some G content, where an industry specialises in it and the producer’s intention is clear and fair.[19] It was suggested that sexually explicit content was another type of content that would be easy for industry to classify, because it is provided by a sector that ‘caters only towards adults’.[20]

Independent decision making

7.33 Given the support for industry classification, the need for an independent classification body at all may be open to question. Despite the limits of the Board to classify all content that may be subject to classification requirements under the ALRC model, some submissions asserted that ‘it is imperative that a government agency, rather than industry bodies, devise and apply the classifications’.[21]

7.34 Submissions variously referred to the importance of a ‘separate’, ‘impartial’ classification body, while others, such as the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM), remarked that ‘classification is a highly technical process, and having one central body will ensure accuracy and consistency’.[22] John Dickie emphasised the need for an independent standard-setting body:

There needs to be a base classification decision making body applying agreed upon criteria and with guidelines to assist in making the decision. In Australia that is most likely to be a government agency. That agency sets the standards and other agencies—government or industry—can take their cue from that.[23]

7.35 Some submissions highlighted the importance of unbiased decision making, particularly in relation to the classification of content where there may be profit or market advantages in under-classifying. FamilyVoice Australia observed, for example, that lower classifications generally lead to increased market share, ‘which is why classification applicants sometimes appeal against the classification of a film for public exhibition because it is higher than the applicant would prefer’.[24]

7.36 Even if it might be pragmatic for industry to classify some media content, it is clear that a board or equivalent body, representative of the community with statutory independence from government, and financial independence from industry, remains highly valued.

[7] The Arts Law Centre of Australia, Submission CI 1299.

[8] F Hudson, Submission CI 402.

[9] D Bryar, Submission CI 1278.

[10] Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 1152.

[11] Telstra, Submission CI 1184.

[12] C McNeill, Submission CI 1997.

[13] E Barker, Submission CI 1781; Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Submission CI 1190; D Henselin, Submission CI 809; P Murphy, Submission CI 255; C Foale, Submission CI 206.

[14] D Bryar, Submission CI 1278.

[15] R Palmer, Submission CI 2296; J McKay, Submission CI 642; G Stille, Submission CI 423.

[16] Australian Christian Lobby, Submission CI 2024.

[17] Australian Home Entertainment Distribution Association, Submission CI 1152.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Confidential, Submission CI 2037.

[20] J Bui, Submission CI 873.

[21] Australian Council on Children and the Media, Submission CI 1236.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J Dickie, Submission CI 582.

[24] FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 85.