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Oz net filter jams up with smut, may be pulled out altogether

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A former Australian regulator recently speculated that there may be changes in the works for Australia's smut regulation, suggesting that self-regulation may eventually follow. This is ahead of a review of the classification system that is being conducted by the Australian Law Review Commission (ALRC).

Does the future for the classification of Australian online content lie in a massive increase in self-regulation by the relevant industries? And how will this impact on the growing demand for the creation of an R18+ games rating?

A detailed analysis this week on Kotaku.com, an e-zine "for people who like to game", suggests that both are ideas whose time has come – but party politics may yet get in the way of what looks like a sensible and practical solution for all.

The two issues are closely linked: on the one hand is a sense that the current regulatory system is over-inclusive, cumbersome and increasingly not fit for purpose; on the other is the snowballing demand, by gamers and, according to polls, by the Australian public for an adult games rating.

According to the former Deputy Director of the Classification Board, Paul Hunt, “the entire [classification] system is out of date” and “[P]hysically it’s just impossible to classify everything in a traditional way."

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor echoed this last month when he said: "It has become increasingly clear that the system of classification in Australia needs to be modernised so it is able to accommodate developments in technology now and in the future."

The problem? At present, every item of online content – from iPhone Apps, to mobile games and other forms of content – must be reviewed and classified by the Classification Board. This is placing an increasing strain on the system, or, as Hunt put it: "I actually think it’s a waste of time to classify the amount the board are classifying now.

"Having a system where the industry has more regulatory control, with the government overseeing it, is a far more efficient model."

The review of the classification system by the ALRC is expected to report back in December 2011. Created in response to the explosion in new technology, the review has as one of its key objectives "minimising the regulatory burden" placed on the Classification Board.

For a Labor government that seems so very taken with the idea of micro-managing Australian access to the internet, such an approach might seem completely contradictory, but O’Connor declared himself tentatively in favour. He said: "I don’t want to jinx the findings of the Australian Law Review Commission, but that’s a path we may have to look at.

"I think there’ll probably have to be some sort of balance – there needs to be a complementary approach where we work together towards some sort of self regulation."

A solution to the second issue – the absence of an R18+ rating – is also long overdue.

This may, however, now be fixed by means of new guidelines, which are currently being drafted and are due to be presented to the next meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys General (SCAG) in March. Alternatively, the Attorneys General may simply decide to wait and see what the ALRC does, and wait until December before pronouncing on any new rating.

However, despite there being broad agreement between government, regulators and industry, the proposed new regime of self-regulation may not be implemented.

The opposition Liberal party is waiting in the wings while the current Labor government clings to a wafer-thin parliamentary majority. Although the Liberal Party have declared themselves opposed to Labor’s plans for an internet filter, they have also displayed more Luddite tendencies, including fierce opposition to the National Broadband Network (NBN), as well as a general inclination towards moral conservatism.

The NBN means more internet for all and almost certainly more internet smut for all: at which point the fear of many is that Australia’s Liberal party will display its slightly more illiberal colours – and come down hard against any regime – including self-regulation – that threatens to take the brakes off personal access to new technology. ®

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