Summary of trends

Examination of content regulation in the US, UK, Canada, NZ, and Singapore reveals a number of trends that have informed the ALRC’s considerations in reviewing the National Classification Scheme. International jurisdictions were selected for analysis based on similarities to Australia in their socio-political structure, legal system, and level of economic development.

In each country surveyed, industry participation is a feature of media content regulation. Even where film and video classification is not mandated, industry agreement driven by consumer pressure has spawned widespread use of classification systems.

Film and DVD classification in the US and UK is handled exclusively by independent organisations originally established by the film industry. A similar scheme is employed in Canada, where an organisation established by the film industry is responsible for aggregating the classifications assigned by the Provincial Classification Boards to provide a uniform classification scheme. Though content classification is largely handled by government bodies in NZ and Singapore, there has been a shift towards industry co-regulation in Singapore.

While there is some variation in the legal force given to the regulation of computer games, classification is self-regulated by industry in key games markets:

  • the US and numerous Canadian provinces utilise a voluntary classification scheme run by the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB), an independent body established under the auspices of industry;

  • the UK recently announced that all computer games sold in the UK would be classified by the Pan European Games Information (PEGI) system, an independent body responsible for computer games classification throughout Europe; and

  • though NZ law only requires that certain restricted level games be classified and marked with NZ labels, other games are generally marketed with overseas classification labels including Australian markings.

Use of a ‘watershed’ in order to limit the broadcast of adult content during hours children are likely to be watching is common to all countries surveyed. Many regulatory schemes distinguish between free-to-air and subscription or on-demand services, with more stringent regulation applying to free-to-air television while subscription and video-on-demand enjoy fewer restrictions. A similar distinction is commonly made between linear and non-linear content. Internet Protocol television (IPTV) is regulated in each of the countries surveyed except for the United States; however, regulatory approaches to IPTV vary widely.

Classification of pornography varies across the countries surveyed, ranging from an outright ban on pornography in Singapore to a lack of any classification requirements in the US. In the UK, NZ, and several Canadian provinces, pornographic films and DVDs are required to be classified while internet content and pornographic publications are not. Even though classification is not required by US law, many producers voluntarily affix the adult-content label ‘X’ to pornographic films. All countries restrict the sale of pornography to those below a certain age, typically eighteen. In addition to laws concerning child pornography, laws commonly outlaw certain forms of ‘extreme pornography’ such as depictions of rape, necrophilia, and bestiality.

With the exception of content deemed ‘obscene’, such as child pornography, which is strictly forbidden, the regulatory schemes surveyed share a common lack of classification of internet content. However, internet activity in each country is still subject to criminal laws and content is monitored by law enforcement. Self-regulatory agreements such as Internet Codes of Practices adopted by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), often in conjunction with initiatives such as the Internet Watch Foundation’s worldwide list of child sexual abuse content, are commonly deployed to combat child pornography. In addition, there is a rise in the use of internet filters by schools, libraries, and parents in order to protect minors from objectionable content.