Minister sits on mobile app censorship

Commonwealth Censorship Minister Brendan O'Connor is yet to decide on whether to make it mandatory for the Classification Board to classify mobile applications, a scheme which iPhone developer Bjango said wasn't needed and could potentially see it pull its apps out of Australia.
Written by Ben Grubb, Contributor

Commonwealth Censorship Minister Brendan O'Connor is yet to decide on whether to make it mandatory for the Classification Board to classify mobile applications, a scheme which iPhone developer Bjango said wasn't needed and could potentially see it pull its apps out of Australia.

Classification Board director Donald McDonald told a senate estimates committee hearing last October that he wrote to O'Connor airing concerns in relation to mobile phone applications not being submitted to the Classification Board for classification.

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor
(Credit: Australian Labor Party)

As it stands, movies and computer games are subject to ratings from the Classification Board. They are classified into categories that include G, PG and M. Games released as mobile applications on smartphone platforms — such as Apple's iPhone — bypass this process. The Classification Board's view is that all games should be classified.

"I recently wrote to the minister regarding my concern that some so-called mobile phone applications, which can be purchased online or either downloaded to mobile phones or played online via mobile phone access, are not being submitted to the board for classification," McDonald told the Senate Estimates Committee in October.

Such a process, if introduced, would classify mobile applications into categories, with the potential for some to be placed onto a "refused classification" category and banned from sale in Australia.

The Classification Board said yesterday it understood the matters its director raised at the Senate Estimates Committee in October were "being examined by the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department".

A statement received from Commonwealth Censorship Minister Brendan O'Connor's office said the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department was "examining the issues raised by the director of the Classification Board about the classification of computer games distributed or playable on mobile phones".

The Attorney-General's Department would be putting the issues to government "in due course", the office said. "The department is obiviously working hard on all of those issues and will be putting issues to government in due course and I think it's not as simple as saying 'next week we will provide the following information to government which will make a decision the following week'. It's a complex issue we certainly understand and understand the issues in it."

Regardless of whether O'Connor decides to make it mandatory for mobile applications to be classified, the Classification Board said it would, upon receipt of a valid application, "classify a computer game, regardless of the platform or device for play and distribution".

Such a process comes with associated fees, which founder of iPhone development company Bjango Marc Edwards said would be costly if made mandatory.

"I can tell you right now that for our iPhone app sales, depending on the app, it's around 4 per cent or less of sales in Australia. So for some projects we just simply wouldn't bother releasing them in Australia if it meant we had to go through a timely and expensive classification process," Edwards said. He also questioned what classified as a game on the iPhone.

"Some apps could be sort of perceived as a game or an app or a utility app," he said. "It's a very difficult line to draw in some cases."

According to Apple, which sells the iPhone, its mobile applications store iTunes had over 185,000 individual applications available for download as of 8 April.

In October, Apple spokesperson Fiona Martin told technology publication iTnews that the company had always adhered to Australian law and would be prepared to make any changes if required.

"We do what the Australian classification people tell us to do," Martin said.

She said there were "no laws" governing mobile applications today. "But if there is a legal requirement within Australia to do something, absolutely we would adhere to that requirement."

A spokesperson for the Classification Board also confirmed to The Australian that the department's concerns extended to the Nokia and RIM online mobile software stores.

"As long as the applications fit the definition of a computer game, film or publication, it makes no difference," the spokesperson reportedly said.

Edwards said the market regulated itself heavily, with both Apple, Nokia and RIM known for removing inappropriate content from their stores. He said that such a scheme proposed by the director of the Classification Board would make the board a lot of money and take away potential funds the developer could make.

"All of a sudden classification boards around the world would be making millions of dollars a year — billions of dollars a year — from the industry and developers themselves would be making nothing," he said.

"I think for Australian developers who have been reading IT news and keeping up with it will see there's going to be some objection there. I think overseas developers are not going to know what [to do] if someone does send them an email saying 'hey, we've got to take down your content or get it classified and [you] pay us money'. How do you govern that?

"Does that mean that Apple have to step in and remove content on behalf of the Classification Board? All of a sudden it would get very messy."

Edwards said the idea was similar to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's mandatory scheme to block "refused classification" material online.

"I see a lot of parallels between this and Conroy's filter," Edwards said. "There's a lot of money to be made for someone and not necessarily much benefit for the public."

According to the Classification Board's website, to classify a computer game in Australia can cost up to $2040. If the developers appeal the classification that the games have been given, the process can get much more expensive.

iPhone developer Edwards said the scheme could potentially prevent "small projects from being developed in Australia, which is obviously a bad thing".

"I certainly know of lots of initiatives via Film Victoria and the government to actually push for innovation in these areas ... and this would seem to go against that I think," he said. "There's a lot of projects that simply wouldn't be released in Australia."

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