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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12623

Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (12:39): The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Online Games) Bill 2011 seeks to amend the current uncertainty surrounding the classification of mobile phone and online games by granting a two-year moratorium on the formal classification of online games. As many members would be aware, technology in this area evolves incredibly fast. It is difficult to keep the regulatory environment up to date, although the opposition considers that this bill, in asking providers of online games to self-regulate, is a sensible approach. The proposed amendments contained within this bill will see the insertion of a new category of exempt online games into the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, which removes the requirements for mobile phone and online games to be classified.

The coalition supports the bill, which seeks to simplify the classification process of online games and the self-regulation amongst the telecommunications industry pending the results of the Australian Law Reform Commission review of the National Classification Scheme. It has been 20 years since the Australian Law Reform Commission was required to give a reference relating to censorship and classification. This is a reflection of the rapid pace of technological change and the amount and type of media available to the Australian community. It is time for legislation to reflect the complicated modern communications landscape that has been completely rewritten since the globalisation of media. It is no longer feasible for the Classification Board to trace online media content considering a large proportion does not come from an Australian based distributor.

The coalition supports the need to improve the classification information available to the community and to enhance public understanding of these classifications so parents can make informed decisions on the content they expose their children to when purchasing and participating in online games. Today's consumers have access to an ever-increasing variety of online games. They are available on many platforms including mobile phones and other electronic devices. Many members would be familiar with games such as Angry Birds Online or other such games that we can get on our iPad, but that is of course one of literally the many thousands of online games now available. The idea that the Classification Board could sensibly classify them all individually is clearly something that is not feasible and that this legislation seeks to address.

At present the classification of mobile phone and online games is regulated under the National Classification Scheme. This cooperative scheme between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments contains the procedures for classification of mobile phone and online games, but the responsibility to enforce legislation remains with the states and territories. The coalition is concerned that at present the majority of mobile applications and online games are not classified before being made available to the public, which is a breach of the current state and territory legislation.

In recent times there has been a significant increase in the number of games and applications readily available for mobile devices and other platforms. There are literally thousands of application submissions every month for licensing with Apple products alone. The National Classification Scheme was not established with this huge quantity of content in mind. Under the current legislation, the Classification Board does not possess the administrative resources to assess even a fraction of the mobile phone and online games that would be submitted for classification, not to mention the significant financial burden that this would place on the industry. With the current regulatory uncertainty surrounding this issue, members of the telecommunications industry have expressed concern about the current regulatory uncertainty and they require clarity on the present legal requirements for the classification of mobile phone and online games.

This bill seeks to amend the principal act to create a much-needed category of exempt online games and, as a result, remove the requirements for mobile phone and online games to be classified for a two-year period. When the current legislation was originally written, it could not possibly have envisaged the rapid rate at which gaming technology has expanded, let alone the rapid development of online games and mobile phone applications. The aim of the bill is to provide clarity for both the local games industry and the community about the regulation of mobile and online games. The industry will still be able to submit these types of games to the Classification Board of Australia for classification but, importantly, will no longer be in violation if they choose not to do so. The industry will be required to self-regulate under the proposed two-year moratorium and maintain awareness of the sanctions for under-classifying its products. The proposed changes to the act are intended to remain in place for two years, after which long-term reforms to combat this issue will be established following the recommendations made by the Australian Law Reform Commission in its review of the National Classification Scheme, to be finalised in 2012. The coalition believes it is important to ensure that the proposed exemption will not apply to computer games which are likely to contain offensive material and would normally be refused classification. It is highly important that existing protections against this category of offensive material continue to apply to online games. Children today are already overexposed to violent and immoral images through their widely unrestricted ability to access the internet and online games. Clearly it is often extraordinarily difficult for parents to police their children's access to this sort of content. The classification of online games is essential to help provide better information and advice to parents to help prevent their children, including their teenagers, from accessing games that may contain gratuitous sex, violence or drug use.

In some circumstances there is arguably a need to restrict access to some online gaming content on the basis of our community standards. However it is important that the parliament also acknowledge that the majority of these games are played by adults who have the right to choose to play online games that contain adult content. It is not up to us as a parliament to act as people's parents, and clearly adults should be the best arbiters of what they should access in almost all circumstances. Some stakeholders, including Apple, understand that policing the output of this type of material in the traditional sense is near impossible. However licensors such as Apple take great care in compliance monitoring of their products before making them readily available for wider distribution.

The coalition knows it is essential to keep many of the other regulatory protections in place. Under the Broadcasting Services Act individuals can lodge a complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority when they are concerned that an online game contains prohibited material. The Director of the Classification Board will still retain the power to investigate any computer game that it suspects contains contentious material that is likely to require the game to be classified as higher than an M rating. The ideal outcome for the Australian Law Reform Commission's findings would be for it to recommend measures that will reduce or avoid a financial and regulatory snarl for the telecommunications sector whilst providing clear and precise classifications for the gaming industry and the wider Australian community.

In summary, the huge increase in volume and variety of online games has made the existing classification regime impractical and redundant. The coalition supports the two-year moratorium on formal classification of online games, pending the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Whilst the coalition supports the bill, we believe it is necessary that 'refused classification' material not be subject to the moratorium. We must continue to balance the rights of adults to make informed choices with the protection of our children. This legislation will require the telecommunications industry to self-regulate its products and it will still face sanctions for the incorrect classification of inappropriate material that it makes readily available to consumers. It is vital to reform the current classification framework in Australia, otherwise we run the risk of damaging our creative industry in this increasingly globalised media environment. We therefore support the passage of this bill through the parliament. It does seem to be a sensible approach to the ongoing technological challenges that are thrown up by the significant advances in technology for online gaming.

I commend the government on coming up with a sensible approach to this issue and we look forward to seeing what the Australian Law Reform Commission comes up with. Certainly from the opposition's perspective a properly working self-regulatory approach would be preferable to going back to a more heavy-handed approach where the government needs to look at individual things before they are classified in a way that would certainly be impractical and would require levels of resourcing for the Classification Board that I do not think would be warranted when another approach might work.