Benefits of the proposed new National Classification Scheme

Promoting platform neutrality

5.4 The proposed new National Classification Scheme would promote platform neutrality in classification law, as discussed in Chapter 4. Platform neutrality means that, as outlined in Principle 8, there should be a uniform approach to the same or similar content, regardless of the medium of delivery.

5.5 This helps avoid inconsistencies that are manifest under the current scheme, and makes the framework more adaptive to unanticipated changes in media technologies, products and services. This is in contrast to the existing framework, which has been described as ‘like a bowl of spaghetti … complex, tangled and, from a media user point of view, impossible to tell which bit of media content connects to which regulatory framework’.[1]

5.6 The ALRC proposes a broad definition of media content that covers not only publications, films and computer games, television and online and mobile content, but also other content, such as music, podcasts and user-generated content. However, as discussed in Chapter 6, this broader complement of content will not generally be subject to any obligation to classify.

5.7 Under the proposed Classification of Media Content Act, classification obligations would apply to media content that includes:

  • publications, films and computer games currently subject to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) (Classification Act);

  • online and mobile content currently subject to the regulatory regime under schs 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth); and

  • broadcast and subscription television content currently regulated under the Broadcasting Services Act, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth) and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 (Cth).

5.8 Under the proposed new National Classification Scheme, the same content, for example a ‘film’, would be subject to the same basic classification obligation regardless of whether it was originally shown in a cinema, broadcast on television, purchased or hired as a DVD or equivalent format, or streamed from the internet. This would eliminate the current costly ‘double handling’ of the same media content for different media platforms. Further, all media content that is required to be classified will be classified according to a single set of classification categories and criteria.

5.9 The ALRC considers that ensuring that classification decisions align with community expectations requires some form of benchmarking. In that light, the ALRC proposes that films for cinema release and some computer games continue to be classified by the Classification Board.

5.10 The ALRC envisages that a comprehensive review of prevailing community standards towards media content in Australia would also be undertaken, that would draw upon quantitative and qualitative social research methodologies and undertaken by independent experts, on a five-yearly basis. Over time, the development of such longitudinal research findings may reduce the need for such benchmarking.

Consistent, age-based classifications

5.11 The ALRC proposes replacing the current classification categories and criteria with categories and criteria that recognise more explicitly the relationship between age-appropriate media content and stages of child development.

5.12 The ALRC proposes amending the categories for media content so that they include: C (content specifically for children); PG 8+ (content appropriate for children aged 8 or over, with parental guidance); T 13+ (content appropriate for teenagers, similar to the United States PG 13+ category); and MA 15+ (mature audience), in addition to the current G and R18+ categories. The current M (Mature) category would disappear, and PG would be a more age-specific category.

5.13 As discussed in Chapter 9, there is generally a high level of community awareness of the classification categories. However, the ALRC found considerable confusion about the relationship between the PG, M and MA 15+ categories particularly among parents and care givers. In order to provide better consumer information about the suitability of media content for children, the ALRC is proposing new and more informative age-based categories be applied.

Co-regulatory approaches

5.14 The new scheme proposed by the ALRC would introduce additional elements of co-regulation into the classification system in two ways.

5.15 First, most content that is subject to a classification obligation may be classified by accredited industry classifiers, though subject to regulatory oversight and audit. Under the scheme, industry groups would have an opportunity to develop their own industry-based classification processes and procedures. This allows government agencies to be more focused on the content that generates the most concern in terms of community standards and the protection of children.

5.16 Secondly, the scheme will provide for the development and operation of industry classification codes, consistent with the statutory classification categories and criteria. As discussed in Chapter 11, the intention is that these codes would assist in the interpretation and application of the statutory classification categories and criteria and introduce some additional flexibility to the regulatory scheme. The government regulator provides a critical ‘back stop’ to the scheme in order to prevent abuse of the co-regulatory scheme by industry participants not concerned with the public interest.

5.17 Industry classification and the extended use of codes will assist classification regulation to be more responsive to technological change and adaptive to new technologies, platforms and services. It also provides the basis for greater ‘buy-in’ by industry players to the classification scheme, thereby allowing industry knowledge and expertise to be directly applied to addressing consumer issues, and building greater trust and knowledge sharing among content providers, distributors and users.[2]

More effective use of public resources

5.18 At present, some media content is over-classified by the Classification Board —for example, the reclassification of feature films and television programs for DVD release, and the classification of all computer games. At the same time, some content is exclusively classified by industry—for example, television programs—while other content is either not classified at all or is classified only following a complaint or investigation.

5.19 These distinctions are platform-based and historic, and bear little relationship to questions of risk or community concern. There has been little consideration of the costs and benefits arising from questions of who classifies what. The costs include not only the commitment of financial and human resources to current classification decisions, but also opportunity costs—the activities foregone in order to meet classification obligations.

5.20 By enabling industry to take greater direct responsibility for classification decision-making, the ALRC envisages more concentration of public resources on ensuring higher-level media content is properly classified and restricted. Industry classification will also free up resources currently deployed in the classification of publications, DVDs and computer games, which can be redeployed in the fast-growing area of online content.

Formal training and accreditation framework for media classifiers

5.21 A corollary of greater direct engagement of industry and content providers in classification decisions, overseen by a government regulator, is the need for a more formalised and consistent training and accreditation framework for media classifiers, in order to ensure consistent decisions that safeguard the effectiveness and integrity of the National Classification Scheme.

5.22 At present, approved classification training is provided by the Classification Branch of the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department, allowing individuals to become authorised assessors. This training is not, however, formally accredited, and there is no award attached to such training. The ALRC will work with the Australian Qualifications Council and relevant government agencies to establish a framework for the accreditation of media classification training that is consistent with the Australian Qualifications Framework, as part of the Classification of Media Content Act.

5.23 The development of consistent and rigorous training and accreditation standards for media classifiers, that acknowledge the industry-based classification experience, will help more adaptive and flexible co-regulatory approaches be combined with a high level of public trust in the quality and consistency of classification decisions across different media platforms.

Aligning classification with cyber-safety and media education

5.24 In developing the new scheme, the ALRC recognises that classification is not the only response to concerns about media content, including concerns about protecting children from material likely to harm or disturb them; and ensuring that consumer information about content is provided in a timely and clear manner.

5.25 The new scheme would provide that much content may not need to be classified, as long as access to the content is restricted. What steps are reasonable to take to restrict access will depend on the delivery platform and may be a matter dealt with in industry codes. This approach responds to the reform principle that classification regulation should be kept to the minimum needed to achieve a clear public purpose, and be clear in its scope and application.[3]

5.26 In addition, the ALRC expects that a range of self-regulatory and other initiatives will continue to be developed to assist consumers to manage their own access to media content, and be able to protect children and others in their care. These measures could include:

  • parental locks and other technical means to protect children from exposure to inappropriate media content;

  • user reporting (or ‘flagging’) of inappropriate content;

  • digital literacy and education programs;[4] and

  • voluntary filtering of online content and the use of internet ‘walled gardens’.

[1] Professor Catharine Lumby, Director, Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales, statement at launch of K Crawford and C Lumby, The Adaptive Moment: A Fresh Approach to Convergent Media in Australia (2011), Sydney, 5 May 2011.

[2] Australian Communications and Media Authority, Optimal Conditions for Effective Self- and Co-regulatory Arrangements (2010), 5.

[3] See Ch 4, Principle 7.

[4] Such as the Cybersmart program, a national cybersafety education program managed by the ACMA.