Thursday, July 07, 2011

Giving up on national classification

There's an air of unreality about the Senate's review of the National Classification Scheme.

Its final report was released in late June.  On the face of it, many of its recommendations are overdue.

For instance:  classification should be consistently applied to all mediums of delivery.  The same classification system should apply to TV, radio, videogames, mobile devices, and so on.  Better that than our current odd and incoherent array of government and self-regulatory codes, which seem to have been developed entirely from scratch for each individual medium.

Then there's lots of recommended tweaks to the classification system, and a call for more funding for classification bodies.  All this is standard for a Senate committee report.

But, meanwhile, the entire foundation of Australia's classification system has collapsed.

As the committee's report acknowledges, ''the committee would prefer that the National Classification Scheme treat all content equally, regardless of the means used to access it.  However, the scale and borderless nature of the internet complicates the practicality of this preferred approach.''

The word ''complicates'' seems to understate the problem somewhat.

Under no circumstances could an Australian classification agency even begin to categorise online content against any rating scheme.  In 2008, Google was indexing 1 trillion separate webpages.  YouTube claims its users upload the equivalent of 150,000 full-length movies every week, and it would take 1,700 years for one person to watch all of its content already online.

And under no circumstances could the Australian Government apply the principles which animate our classification system to online material -- one of which is ''everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive''.  Even if you thought protection against offence was a worthy goal of public policy, there's simply no way to do so.

The committee just gave up, writing in its report it ''did not receive enough evidence to make specific findings on this issue'', presumably hoping other government inquiries might be able to sort it out where they could not.

This was the first major inquiry into the National Classification Scheme since it was introduced more than a decade ago.  And they squibbed it.

The internet challenge should be an opportunity to rethink the purpose of the government classification programs as a whole.

The committee's failure is all the more acute considering potentially classifiable film and television is increasingly being distributed online, aided by consumer plug-in interfaces which allow Australians to connect their television to the internet.

Media consumption is rapidly moving out of the reach of government classifiers.

As a consequence, attempts to quarantine film, television, or computer games from the Australian market do little but encourage piracy.

Take videogames, whose censorship has been so thoroughly circumvented that reform seems more formality than necessity.  Yes, it would have been nice if gamers were able to purchase adult-only games at retail stores.  But with online shopping, international shipping, and, of course, downloading, there are few serious barriers to getting hold of banned games like Mortal Kombat or Left 4 Dead 2.

And for online and mobile videogames, classification is in practice voluntary.

It took five years for World of Warcraft -- one of the most popular games in history -- to be classified by Australian regulators, because, it was an online game.

It's easy to forecast similar situations occurring with film and television, once a) Australians become more comfortable downloading or streaming film and television from overseas, and b) entertainment business models adjust to a world where most media consumption is online.

That's not a question of if, but when.

The inevitable slide of government media classification into irrelevancy does not mean classification will disappear entirely.  It'll just go private.

Non-profit groups which rate films according to ethical or religious criteria have been around for a long time.  There's a cottage industry of conservative Christians in the United States judging Hollywood films for nudity and swearing and unethical behaviour.  Sites like www.commonsensemedia.org provide far more information and greater detail than the Australian Government.  Parents looking for kids films or games in the new media world have a wealth of resources to assess appropriateness.

And, of course, there are the wide range of filters one can install on a home computer that's used by children to control their internet use.  Parents have had to take matters into their own hands already.

The Senate committee's air of unreality is most dense when it discusses the location of adult magazines and films being displayed in retail outlets near products which appeal to children.

Pornographic magazines and over-the-counter DVDs are almost the definition of an industry in decline.  They are not the classification system's biggest issue right now.

It seems clear the purpose of the Senate review was not simply to assess the efficacy of classification, but to dredge up the usual claims that the media is ignoring community standards.

This is a Senate hobby.  In the past few years, the Upper House has solemnly investigated issues like swearing on TV after some people complained about Gordon Ramsey and Big Brother.

Many politicians use discussion about classification as no more than opportunity for moral grandstanding.

But that's not the real game.  If our classification system cannot deal with the fact that entertainment is moving online, then its long-term viability must be seriously in doubt.

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