A National Classification System.

Media classification is one of those subjects that affects everyone but it never really gets discussed apart from when it causes a bit of stir like when a game is refused classification. Unfortunately this has meant that new forms of media have either slipped under the classification radar or have been stuck with a system that wasn’t designed for today’s world. The problem with Australia’s current approach to media classification is that it is unable to deal with new forms of media as they are created and as such either ignores them or attempts to shoe horn them into the models developed for old media. This has most publicly affected Australia’s gaming community with the lack of a R18+ rating which, admittedly is a small issue in the grand scale of things, still remains as an issue today.

However the lack of a R18+ rating for games is symptomatic of a larger problem. Whilst new forms of media aren’t exactly an everyday event the advent of new distribution channels for content have made the single source of truth style of classification almost irrelevant. Take for instance YouTube who, whilst having their own set of guidelines as to what is acceptable, don’t have any relationship with the Australian Classification Board (ACB). Considering you can see something as innocent as a double rainbowto Baraka beheading Johnny Cage in the new Mortal Kombat shortwithout even a hint of classification about it (although YouTube does allow users to flag content as adult, requiring a login) the task of classifying such vast amounts of material seems almost impossible for an organisation like the ACB.

Indeed these services rely on the fact that the material doesn’t have to go through such classification channels. Getting a classification through the ACB incurs a feefrom around $400 all the way up to $5,000 depending on the type of material and intended means of distribution. Such fees would pose a significant barrier to anyone looking to distribute content online should the classification of such media become mandatory and unfortunately it appears that the ACB intends to do just that:

At a conservative estimate, one-third of them are games, suggesting compliance costs would be in the millions.

A spokeswoman for Minister of Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor said he was “concerned about the classification of games playable on mobile telephones and had put the wheels in motion to address this with his state and territory counterparts”.

Definitions of computer games under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 do not exclude games distributable or playable on mobile phones.

This isn’t a new idea either. Back in April Minister O’Connor (the director of the ACB) expressed concerns over the mobile space that bypasses their classification process. Whilst I share some of his concerns it appears that little thought had been given to the impact that his words might have, especially when it comes to developers and content producers looking to Australia as a potential market.

Now I understand that the ACB has the best of intentions when it comes to this but the way they’re going about this only serves to create a hostile environment for those looking to distribute their product on our shores. The app store and other similar product distribution methods have been successful because they have been allowed to self regulate and imposing fees on them will more than likely see all but the biggest players pull out of the Australian market. With most paid iPhone applications selling less than 10,000 units at the average price point of $0.99 (with 30% of that going to Apple) even the cheapest classification severely cuts into any sales they make, even to the point of making it completely unprofitable.

What’s required then is a complete rethink of the current classification system and how it can be applied to the new digital world and its various distribution methods. This comes down to a fundamental shift away from the current system which is highly segmented between different media formats. Unifying all these classification bodies under a single banner with a standard framework for classifying content would eliminate the disparity in classification information and serve as a basis for new forms of media as they are created. It would also ensure that markets such as the iPhone and Android app stores don’t suffer unnecessary financial burdens by being shoe horned into a classification framework that couldn’t fathom their creation. In essence classification in Australia needs a rethink on a national scale and it needs it soon.

The good news is that such an idea is not new and I’m not the only one who supports it. The Australian Sex Party (who are readers of this blog, which I find rather cool :D) also supports a national classification scheme as part of their larger stance on making adult material available across all states and territories, as you can currently only legally buy it in the ACT and NT (but you can also import from these territories too). I support their stance on this issue as it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put these artificial restrictions on such material but it also has the flow on effect of ensuring that new media doesn’t get killed in Australia simply because we refuse to change our ways for the better part of 2 decades.

These issues were something that we simply could not fathom when we first set about creating standards for media classification. It has come time for a fundamental change in the way we do these things in order to keep pace with our ever changing technologically driven world. To not do anything risks Australia being seen as a media blackspot, unable to cope with the world that is changing around it. However there is hope for change as the roots of movement against the status quo are already taking hold and it is only a matter of time before we will see the first steps towards a more sensible future.

Tip of the hat to my old university pal Dave Woodgate for hooking me up with the inspiration for this post.

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