The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will introduce changes to the regulation of restricted content available online and via mobile next week, despite an overwhelming negative response from the media and industry.
ACMA is intending to impose a set of guidelines to restrict access to MA15+ and R18+ content accessed through the Internet and mobile premium services under the Restricted Access Systems Declaration, putting the onus on content providers to ensure that users accessing MA15+ and R18+ content can prove they are at least 15 or 18 years of age respectively.
"In developing these new content rules, ACMA was guided by its disposition to allow adults to continue to read, hear and see what they want, while protecting children from exposure to inappropriate content, regardless of the delivery mechanism," said Chris Chapman, ACMA chairman, in a statement recently.
The regulations will now require users to view front-end warning screens and check age verification declarations on Australian sites hosting restricted content.
ACMA requested comment from industry and individuals on the proposed changes in November, and received 26 submissions in reply from a wide range of respondents including the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSW CCL), the Internet Industry Association (IIA), large media and Internet companies such as Google Australia, ACP Magazines and PBL Media, as well as telcos and mobile carriers such as Vodafone, Optus and Telstra.
The majority of the responses raised concerns with practicality of the legislation's demand to verify the ages of users under the age of 18, as well as objecting to its inconsistency with restrictions applied to traditional broadcasters.
The NSW CCL also expressed its reservations that the increased traffic in personal details resulting from the legislation could lead to even greater risk of identity thefts.
"There was certainly a fair degree of criticism from industry given the political context in which the changes arose," said Peter Coroneos, IIA CEO.
Coroneos believes the catalyst for the changes can be traced back to 2006, when a lewd "incident" was broadcast live on the Web site for Channel Ten's reality program Big Brother resulting in a nation-wide media storm.
"It was a cynical move," he said. "Prime Minister Howard intervened just as the moral outrage had reached a crescendo and wanted to appear to be doing something about it."
Far less attention was given to another controversy involving Sydney-based Internet radio station, Net FM, as seen on the ABC's Media Watch last year, when a presenter for the station repeatedly engaged in racial and sexual vilification on air.
"A degree of moral panic exists here for which the same kinds of issues in other countries wouldn't result in changes to legislation," said Coroneos, who considered the Big Brother incident an isolated one, and was not himself aware of the concerns raised over Net FM.
"We were also concerned that this legislation was intended by the government to have more of a symbolic impact than anything else," he said.
One of the strongest reactions garnered against the legislation came from Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), one of Australia's largest magazine publishers and home to men's lifestyle publications such as Zoo, FHM and Ralph, which all host MA15+ content on their associated Web sites.
"We are very concerned by the proposed extension of R18+ access restrictions to MA15+ content," said Ben Heuston, ACP's digital director, in a statement submitted to ACMA late last year.
"The proposed regulations appear impractical and discriminatory...there seems no practical way of restricting this type of content to 15-17 year olds, we are not aware of an effective system working anywhere else in the world," he said.
Working with ACMA
The IIA CEO said that early drafts of the Restricted Access Systems Declaration were unworkable for content providers and imposed unnecessary restraints on their users.
Despite the considerable negative response to ACMA's requests for comment on the legislation, Coroneos said that the communications regulator was very cooperative in its dealings with industry.
"They sympathized a lot with the difficulty faced by industry," he said.
"It turned out to be a very constructive relationship between regulator and industry, both sides had to attempt to fulfill the requirements of a contentious piece of legislation."
According to Coroneos, ACMA would not have approved the legislation if discussions with industry had broken down.
Concerns over free speech
"ACMA did not take the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of speech into account sufficiently when drafting the legislation," said Michael Walton, a committee member on the NSW CCL.
"We're of the view that censoring the Internet like this and restricting people's access is in no way necessary or proportional to the problem at hand," he said.
The IIA's Coroneos expressed comparable sentiments to Walton and said that Australia's lack of a guaranteed right to free speech has placed the country at the wrong end of the censorship continuum in the developed world.
"Ultimately, the best defense against all of this is a well-informed public," he said.