Online Censorship in Australia Eases Up... a Bit

Perhaps those of us who live the United States take our freedoms for granted. We can complain all we want about inappropriate content in Grand Theft Auto IV, but we'll stand behind the right of Rockstar Games to sell it. We might not want our children surfing for porn, but we have no intention to tell other folks that they can't view it just because we might find the content objectionable. We're obviously generalizing here; there are plenty of U.S. citizens out there who would love to ban all objectionable content, but they do not represent the majority.

In the U.S., we have a self-regulating organization that assigns and enforces content ratings: the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Unlike the U.S., however, the Australian government doesn't trust its interactive entertainment industry to regulate itself. So, today the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)--a government agency--announced that a new code of practices has just been approved, designed to regulate content on Australia's online and mobile phone networks.

"The code says that all content likely to be MA15+ or above must be assessed and classified by trained content assessors, hired by providers of online and mobile content. By requiring content classification assessment, this code assists both children and their parents to make informed choices about what is, or is not, suitable for viewing online or on mobile phones...

The code will form part of new rules, introduced in legislation last year, that establish a regulatory framework for all content delivered online and via mobile phones. The new regulatory framework introduces measures to protect the safety of children when using online and mobile content services."

While many might regard government regulation with disdain, the new rating code system actually eases up a number of restrictions Australia has been dealing with in regards to electronic content. Previous to this new code, the highest rating electronic content could be given was a MA15+ rating (not suitable for under 15 years of age). If content warranted a rating higher than MA15+, it was prohibited in Australia. Higher ratings, such as R18+ and X18+ existed for the Australian film industry, however, but not for electronic content.

Games like Grand Theft Auto IV and the upcoming Fallout 3 are banned from being sold in Australia because their content is perceived to exceed the acceptable limits of the MA15+ rating. If we're reading the new code correctly (it can be found here as a PDF file), R18+ and X18+ ratings are now legitimate ratings for electronic content in Australia. X18+ content will still be prohibited, but R18+ content will be permitted as long as it is "subject to appropriate access restrictions." The document goes into detail on how to potentially enable age-based access restrictions in the online environment; it does not, however, specify if the new R18+ rating can also be applied to games.

If the Attorney-General of the Government of South Australia, the Honorable Michael Atkinson MP, is representative of the rest of the Australian government, however, then it looks like games will still be stuck with a rating system that goes no higher than MA15+. reprinted a letter from Atkinson, where he defended the rationale behind limiting the access of mature content game titles:

"...I cannot fathom what State-enforced safeguards could exist to prevent R18+ games being bought by households with children and how children can be stopped from using these games, once the games are in the home. If adult gamers are so keen to have R18+ games, I expect children would be just as keen. I have publically argued that because electronic games are interactive, the violence and other adult content in games have a strong impact. I am particularly concerned about the impact these games have on children, who can spend a lot of their unsupervised leisure time gaming."

The article summed it up based when it stated:

"As per usual, it's all about 'protecting the children', and skirts around the issue of adult gamers HAVING the choice to play the games they want. I didn't realise it was the job of the government to do the parents job for them."

We'll continue to dig deeper into the debate to determine if we're properly interpreting the details, to gauge if in fact the moral strings are really be loosened, and if the new ratings also apply to games.

(Note: Credit is due to Ars Technica, where the issue of Australian censorship of games first came to our attention.)