The Australian Law Reform Commission has published a review of the censorship and classification systems currently in place and has made a number of recommendations including the creation of a new Classification of Media Content Act.

It has been 20 years since the last review, and the report provides an overview both of the policy framework and of the recommendations made in the report Classification – Content Regulation and Convergent Media which can be accessed here.

The eight guiding principles and 57 recommendations contained in the report set out to address deficiencies in the current classification and content regulation framework, described as ¨an analogue piece of legislation in a digital world¨.

The recommendations call for a new classification scheme fit for the convergent media age which includes: being platform neutral, defining clearly what types of programmes and computer games must be classified, restricting adult content, enabling greater participation by industry stakeholders in the classification process (subject to regulatory oversight), a role for the classification board in benchmarking and reflecting community standards and putting in place a single regulator with primary responsibility for regulating the new, replacement scheme.

The net effect of the recommendations means the establishment of a new National Classification Scheme that:

applies consistent rules to content that are sufficiently flexible to be adaptive to technological change;
places a regulatory focus on restricting access to adult content, helping to promote cyber-safety and protect children from inappropriate content across media platforms;
retains the Classification Board as an independent classification decision maker with an essential role in setting benchmarks;
promotes industry co-regulation, encouraging greater industry content classification, with government regulation more directly focused on content of higher community concern;
provides for pragmatic regulatory oversight, to meet community expectations and safeguard community standards;
reduces the overall regulatory burden on media content industries while ensuring that content obligations are focused on what Australians most expect to be classified; and
harmonises classification laws across Australia, for the benefit of consumers and content providers.

The report also addresses how content should be marked, packaged and advertised to consumers, and for content that must be classified, content providers will be obliged to display the classification. It also recommends the harmonisation and consistency in the development and implementation of such codes.

The context for this report is that it is one of several reviews taking place in Australia, including the Convergence Review that was conducted in 2011 by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. This effort was aimed at looking at current legislation pertaining to media and communications in the context of convergence. This report will be released at the end of March.

The developments in Australia are interesting because they acknowledge the need for consistency and harmonisation of content signalling  (programme descriptive metadata) as a benefit to consumers. They allow for the future development of industry codes that will address how to enable this information to be made available to consumers using the various data-driven interfaces (eg, EPGs and evolving ´content navigation´ systems) but the manner in which this is to be achieved is as yet undefined.

In contrast, for example in Europe, there are national classification schemes in place for every member state, and self-regulatory efforts in the UK, for example, that do not as yet recognise any need for consistency. Instead they stress that individual content providers would take the responsibility to decide for themselves how to communicate the content of their programmes to viewers.

This approach is not workable or sensible taking into consideration the evolving content navigation systems that help consumers find and decide what content to watch, especially considering a range of other ongoing challenges to accessing consistent descriptive metadata about programming to drive new applications.

Chris Dawes, a former UK Government official working for the Department of Culture Media and Sport, spoke about this issue in the recently published European Audiovisual Observatory Report, ¨The Regulation of On-Demand Audiovisual Services: Chaos or Coherence? (click here), saying ¨will we depend on initiatives such as the UK´s Good Practice Principles on Audiovisual Content Information? Or will we want to be more automated, needing a drive to more standardisation of metadata?¨

In the EU, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS) continues to be implemented by Member States, with European governments taking action on a national level to ensure appropriate safeguards for children as well as complying with various other signalling requirements.

It is already apparent that EU member states are coming up with various symbols, codes, and conventions for signalling sponsorship and product placement to consumers. So it is easy to forget that such labels must also be accessible to consumers from the various text-driven content navigation tools from which they make their viewing choices.

Consistent labels -  whether they are intended for age-gating, the presence of product placement, or signalling accessibility and a range of other features for public benefit – all need to be additionally transposed into consistent descriptive metadata that can be easily ingested into content navigation systems. This is a real requirement far beyond the ´every man for himself´ approach, and it will be a big challenge for content providers to come to a common agreement. In the meantime any steps towards recognising the need for more harmonisation and consistency in the form of descriptive metadata to signal content to consumers are to be commended, even if they are just beginning to take place on a national level, as in Australia, for now.