Classification categories and criteria

101. Under the NCS the current classifications are:

  • for publications—Unrestricted; Category 1 restricted; Category 2 restricted; and RC Refused Classification.

  • for films—G General; PG Parental Guidance; M Mature; MA 15+ Mature Accompanied; R 18+ Restricted; X 18+ Restricted; and RC Refused Classification.

  • for computer games—G General; PG Parental Guidance; M Mature; MA 15+ Mature Accompanied; and RC Refused Classification.[57]

102. Some classifications only provide advice or recommendations—it is ultimately a matter for parents and carers to decide whether their children may view, read or play the item. Other classifications are used to legally restrict access to certain age groups or adults, or to prohibit material entirely. These restrictions are enforceable under state and territory enforcement legislation which prescribes offences and penalties for breaches.

103. The Classification Board must also decide consumer advice for films and computer games classified PG and higher.[58] In relation to unrestricted publications or computer games and films classified G, the Board has discretion to provide consumer advice if it is deemed necessary.[59]

104. Under the Broadcasting Services Act, there are categories of online content defined as ‘prohibited content’ and ‘potential prohibited content’, which parallel the legally restricted classification categories under the Classification Act.[60]

105. Publications, films and computer games must be classified in accordance with criteria prescribed in the National Classification Code and Classification Guidelines.[61] Section 11 of the Classification Act prescribes certain matters that must be taken into account in the making of classification decisions and there are also provisions that direct the Boards to refuse classification to material that advocates terrorist acts.[62]

106. The classification categories have not changed substantially since the establishment of the NCS in 1995.[63] Though the categories are rarely criticised,[64] the ALRC is interested in whether they are understood in the community and in the merits of other possible classification categories, such as:

  • the Children (C), Preschool Children (P) and the Adult Violence (AV) classification categories used by commercial television broadcasters;[65] and

  • the age-based classification categories for films (U, PG, 12A/12, 15, 18, and R18) used by the British Board of Film Classification.[66]

Common classification categories and criteria

107. One potential reform in this area may be the introduction of common classification markings, categories and criteria for all types of classified media.

108. In a convergent media environment, the differences between media (eg, publications and films) are becoming increasingly blurred—particularly as people move to access traditionally offline content, such as books and magazines, online. Moving images and film footage, for example, are routinely included on text-based web pages and have been embedded in electronic books.[67] To some extent, this was recognised in the development of common classification markings, categories and combined classification guidelines for films and computer games, introduced by the Office of Film and Literature Classification between 2003 and 2005.[68]

109. It may, therefore, no longer make practical sense to have one set of classification markings for publications and another different set for films and computer games.[69] Instead, relevant publications might, for example, be classified R 18+ or X 18+ rather than Category 1 Restricted and Category 2 Restricted.

110. A highly converged, media-neutral environment might also lend itself to common classification criteria and guidelines. While the classification criteria articulated in the National Classification Code and Guidelines are broadly consistent—in expressing similar principles, community standards and limits on particularly extreme content—there are some differences. For example, impact thresholds from very mild to high are prescribed for each classification category in the classification guidelines for films and computer games, but not in the publications guidelines. The criteria under each of the classifiable elements, eg. nudity, sex, violence, themes etc, are also expressed differently.

111. That the R 18+ classification is not available for one type of media—computer games—is perhaps the most contentious anomaly in Australia’s current classification scheme.[70] Leaving aside the specific issues concerning the absence of an R 18+ classification for computer games, this inconsistency with classifications across other media formats has potential implications for classifiers’ decision-making processes as content converges. In future, one entertainment product may contain multiple media elements including text, still images, film sequences, gaming elements, interactivity, three dimensionality and more.

112. One objection to introducing common classification categories and criteria may be that some media intrinsically has a higher impact than other media: the moving images in a film, some may argue, have a greater impact than the still images in a magazine, so films and magazines should be treated differently. However, common classification guidelines might accommodate these concerns by, for example, referring to the potential for moving images to increase impact. Likewise, rather than have separate guidelines for computer games, the one set of guidelines might refer to the potential for interactive content to increase impact.

113. Common classification categories and criteria across media might not only simplify and reduce the cost of regulation, it may also streamline the classification decision-making processes. It might also increase community understanding of the classification categories, so Australians are able to make more informed decisions about content they choose for themselves and their families.

114. There may also be practical advantages to consolidating classification criteria and guidelines into one instrument or document. Currently, the Classification Boards and other classification decision-makers must consider matters and criteria in the Classification Act, the National Classification Code, the Guidelines for the Classification of Publications, and the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games.[71] It might assist those undertaking classification activities to refer to one document containing all criteria and matters to be considered. Similarly, it may provide easier access to classification information and make classification decisions more transparent to the community.

Question 20. Are the existing classification categories understood in the community? Which classification categories, if any, cause confusion?

Question 21. Is there a need for new classification categories and, if so, what are they? Should any existing classification categories be removed or merged?

Question 22. How can classification markings, criteria and guidelines be made more consistent across different types of content in order to recognise greater convergence between media formats?

Question 23. Should the classification criteria in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth), National Classification Code, Guidelines for the Classification of Publications and Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games be consolidated?

Refused Classification (RC) category

115. The RC classification is the highest classification that can be given to publications, films and computer games in Australia.[72] In effect, it constitutes the censorship part of classification. The RC classification serves to prohibit—by way of the state and territory enforcement legislation—certain content from being sold, publicly exhibited or possessed with an intention to sell. However, it is not illegal to possess most RC material in most parts of Australia. RC content is also one type of ‘prohibited content’ under the Broadcasting Services Act.

116. The ALRC is primarily considering the RC classification because of its relationship to the Australian Government’s proposed mandatory internet filter. As the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy has explained, ‘the Government’s mandatory ISP filtering policy is underpinned by the strength of our classification system’.[73] The Government has described its proposed mandatory ISP filtering scheme as follows:

Overseas hosted content that is classified RC will be included on a list maintained by [ACMA] for the purpose of ISP filtering. This will be known as the ‘RC content list’. It will be compiled in two ways:

  • overseas-hosted content that is the subject of a complaint from the public made to ... ACMA and

  • incorporation of international lists of overseas-hosted child sexual abuse material from highly reputable overseas agencies following a detailed assessment of the processes used by those agencies to compile their lists.[74]

117. As a result of the Government’s public consultation on ways to ensure that the process of placing content on the RC content list was sufficiently accountable and transparent, it announced a number of measures including that all internet content complaints to ACMA that are assessed as being potentially RC are to be classified by the Classification Board.[75] Arguably, the proposed mandatory ISP-level filtering scheme is based upon a desire for parity between offline and online content regulation.[76]

118. Countries differ as to what content they prohibit—‘depending on culture, historical content and differences of opinion on where the balance between freedom of speech and other interests lies’.[77] In Australia, RC content includes child abuse material such as child pornography, extreme violence including rape, bestiality, the incitement of a terrorist act, detailed instruction in crime or drug use, and what one commentator has described as ‘live portrayals of certain sexual fetishes’.[78] The acts comprising the subject of some of this content—for example, rape—are prohibited by the criminal law. The criminal law recognises that such acts harm society and by way of an extension, the RC classification could be seen to recognise the harm that may or can be caused by the dissemination of certain information and images. As one commentator has observed, ‘it is generally accepted that children are harmed whenever child pornography is created, disseminated and viewed’.[79]

119. In terms of the framework for the classification of media content in Australia, the Classification Act provides that publications, films or computer games that advocate the doing of a terrorist act must be classified RC.[80] However, in all other cases publications, films and computer games are to be classified in accordance with the National Classification Code and the Classification Guidelines.[81]

120. The National Classification Code assigns the RC classification to publications, films or computer games that:

  • depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or

  • describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not); or

  • promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence.[82]

121. In addition, the Code provides that publications that describe ‘sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified’ should also be classified RC. Further, the Code provides that computer games that are unsuitable for a minor to see or play should be classified RC.

122. Some commentators have argued that ‘much of the material deemed RC in Australia would not be refused classification in other Western democratic liberal countries’.[83] Criticisms have also been made of the ambiguity of the terms and concepts used in the RC classification[84] and the potential for ‘scope creep’.[85]

Question 24. Access to what content, if any, should be entirely prohibited online?

Question 25. Does the current scope of the Refused Classification (RC) category reflect the content that should be prohibited online?

[57]Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) s 7.

[58] Ibid s 20(1).

[59] Ibid s 20(2).

[60]Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) sch 7, ss 20, 21.

[61]Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) s 9.

[62] Ibid s 9A.

[63] Before 1995, key changes were marked by the introduction of additional film classifications—the R certificate in 1971, the X classification in 1984 and the MA classification in 1993. Common classification markings and categories for films and computer games took effect in 2005.

[64] Classification categories, with the exception of the absence of an R 18+ classification for computer games, do not feature as an issue in complaints to the Boards, media articles critical of the classification scheme or in comments by Senators during Senate Estimates hearings.

[65]Commercial Television Code of Practice (2010).

[66] See British Board of Film Classification, BBFC: British Board of Film Classification <http://www.bbfc.co.uk> at 16 May 2011.

[67] A book, for example, may be digitised and converted into an application imbedded with moving images; the application might then be read and watched from a mobile phone. Is this a film, a computer game or a publication?

[68] The common classification markings were intended to address the ‘outdated nature of the previous determinations in respect of the marking of emerging technologies which blur the distinction between “films” and “computer games”, new storage devices and current marketing techniques’: Explanatory Statement Issued by the Director of the Classification Board, Classification (Markings for Films and Computer Games) Determination 2005.

[69] In the context of the R 18+ classification for computer games issue, Standing Committee of Attorneys-General ministers are considering a separate set of classification guidelines for computer games which are currently combined with the classification guidelines for films.

[70] The final report of the Australian Government Attorney-General Department’s recent review of the R 18+ classification for computer games is available at http://www.ag.gov.au/gamesclassification.

[71] The National Classification Code was originally a schedule to the Classification Act but is now a separate legislative instrument.

[72]Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) s 7.

[73] S Conroy (Minister for Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy), ‘Outcome of Consultations on Transparency and Accountability for ISP Filtering of RC Content’ (Press Release, 9 July 2010).

[74] Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy, Mandatory Internet Service Provider (ISP) Filtering: Measures to Increase Accountability and Transparency for Refused Classification Material (Consultation Paper) (2009) 2.

[75] Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy, Outcome of Public Consultation on Measures to Increase Accountability and Transparency for Refused Classification Material (2010), 3.

[76] L Bennett Moses, ‘Creating Parallels in the Regulation of Content: Moving from Offline to Online’ (2010) 33 University of New South Wales Law Journal 581, 590.

[77] Ibid, 601.

[78] Ibid, 583.

[79] Ibid 588. Collette Langos notes that ‘[T]here is a large body of international research on children’s distress when they inadvertently come across online pornography and other unwelcomed content.’ See C Langos, ‘Proposed Mandatory Filtering for Internet Service Providers (ISPs)—A Brief Insight Into How Filtering the Refused Content List May Affect Australian ISPs’ (2010) 13 Internet Law Bulletin 137, 139.

[80]Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) s 9A(1).

[81] Ibid s 9.

[82] National Classification Code, cl 2, item 1; cl 3, item 1; cl 4, item 1.

[83] K Crawford and C Lumby, The Adaptive Moment: A Fresh Approach to Convergent Media in Australia (2011) 46.

[84] For example, see M Ramaraj Dunstan, ‘Australia’s National Classification System for Publications, Films and Computer Games: Its Operation and Potential Susceptibility to Political Influence in Classification Decisions’ (2009) 37 Federal Law Review 133, 148.

[85] That is, expansion of the scope of the filter to material that would not be restricted offline. See L Bennett Moses, ‘Creating Parallels in the Regulation of Content: Moving from Offline to Online’ (2010) 33 University of New South Wales Law Journal 581, 598.