Concerns about children encountering inappropriate material on the internet are common. This section outlines how internet material is regulated in Australia, how children can be kept safe, and where to find more information.
Australia’s internet content regulation scheme
Australia’s scheme for regulating internet content is administered by the federal government. It is co-regulatory, meaning that the internet industry and the community are also involved. The scheme is guided by industry practicalities and the principle that what is restricted offline should also be restricted online.
Internet content is regulated by a public complaints procedure, laws, and industry codes of practice.
Anyone can complain about internet content they feel is objectionable. The specific procedure and solutions vary, depending on the nature and source of the material. Complaints are usually made to the ACMA. Visit their website at www.acma.gov.au/Citizen/Take-action/Complaints.
Internet content is generally classified using the same categories as used for films and computer games, as follows.
RC (Refused Classification) content cannot be legally hosted on an internet site in Australia, just as a RC film cannot legally be brought into the country. For example, material that is deemed to deal with sensitive topics like sex, drug misuse, crime and violence in a way that offends against the standards of reasonable adults, or offensively depicts a person who is or appears to be under 16, will be refused classification.
X-rated material (depictions of actual sexual activity) is also prohibited on the internet, as are X-rated films in most states (except the ACT and the Northern Territory). Content that contains real depictions of actual sexual activity between consenting adults, and is classified as unsuitable for a minor to see – and does not fall into the RC category – is classified “X”. However, some films can be exempt from classification; for instance if they are screened in a particular film festival, or made for scientific purposes.
Other types of content may only be illegal if children can easily get access to them.
R content is material that is not RC or X but is unsuitable for a minor to see. Accordingly, there must be a Restricted Access System to prevent access to the content by people under 18. If there is not, this material can also be the subject of a complaint.
The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) was amended in 2012, bringing the classification system for computer games into line with the existing system for films and online content, and with international standards. The new classification was introduced on 1 January 2013 and allows adult computer gamers in Australia access to the full range of games with adult content.
Internet filtering currently consists of a regulatory regime under which ACMA has the power to enforce content restrictions on internet content hosted within Australia, and to maintain a “black list” of overseas websites provided for use by filtering software.
Illegal and offensive online content is regulated through the Online Content Scheme under schedules 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) through a complaints-based mechanism. The restrictions focus primarily on child pornography, sexual violence and other illegal activities.
A federal government proposal to require Australian ISPs to block access to a list of “refused content” (RC) yet to be implemented. Instead, in January 2014, the federal Department of Communications released a public discussion paper seeking comment on enhancing online safety for children. A range of measures are proposed in the outline of the government’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children, including:
•establishing a Childrens e-Safety Commissioner;
•developing an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to quickly take down harmful material from large social media sites; and
•examining existing Commonwealth legislation to determine whether to create a new, simplified cyber-bullying offence.
Under the current National Classification Scheme, RC-rated material includes any material that depicts child sex abuse, bestiality, sexual violence and the detailed instruction of crime. The government has said it will review the Refused Classification category before the mandatory filtering legislation is introduced.
It is anticipated that the RC list will be compiled from complaints made by the public, that are then assessed using criteria set out in the National Classification Scheme. In addition to such material, the government also plans to block access to specific internet addresses of known child abuse material, which it obtains from select overseas agencies.
It is already illegal under the National Classification Scheme and related legislation to distribute, sell or make available for hire RC-rated films, computer games and publications. However, such measures are only effective when content is hosted in Australia. The government claims that by requiring ISPs to block access to RC content, it can more effectively restrict access to RC content hosted overseas.
Complaints must be in writing and must include:
•your name and contact details;
•the internet address of the content and any other details required to access it (e.g. a password);
•description of the internet content; and
•the reason(s) you feel the content is objectionable.
A complaint form can be made via the ACMA website at acma.gov.au – click on “Make a complaint”.
Alternatively, post your complaint to:
Australian Communications and Media Authority
Attn: Content Assessment Hotline Manager
Level 32, Melbourne Central Tower,
360 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne Vic 3000
Tel: 9963 6800
Once ACMA receives a complaint it is obliged to investigate. If the content is hosted in Australia and is prohibited or likely to be prohibited, ACMA will direct the ICH to remove the content from their service. Prohibited content is content that is or would be classified RC or X by the Classification Board. As part of an investigation ACMA may request the Classification Board to classify the content according to its guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games.
If an Australian site hosts the RC or X material, ACMA will issue a “take-down notice”. If the ICH is aware of the content and does not comply, they will be fined. In serious cases (e.g. involving child pornography), state or territory police can become involved. Depending on the state or territory, the content provider, the ICH and the ISP – if they knew the content was illegal – may all be prosecuted and face a fine or a jail term.
If the RC or X content is hosted outside Australia, the Australian co-regulatory scheme does not apply to the offshore ICH. However, Australian ISPs are subject to the scheme. When an ISP is issued an “access-prevention notice” by ACMA, it must comply with Internet Industry Codes of Practice or an industry standard, or take reasonable steps to block overseas-hosted material.
The Codes of Practice require an ISP to have an approved filter on its system for this purpose. ACMA will forward the content details to filter makers or suppliers so that they can update their software. ACMA also regularly notifies ISPs about prohibited or potentially prohibited content. In serious cases, the Australian Federal Police or the relevant overseas law enforcement agencies may become involved.
R content hosted without a restricted access system will be removed until the ICH installs an appropriate one. A restricted access system must have a registration process where applicants prove that they are at least 18. Subscribers have to input a special PIN number or password before they can access the R material. If children have accessed the material – depending on the state or territory and the particular situation – police may prosecute the content provider, the ICH and the ISP.
Besides the complaints system, the shared effort to regulate internet content includes Codes of Practice developed by the Internet Industry Association (now managed by the Communications Alliance, see “Further information”). While the Codes are largely voluntary and self-regulated, ACMA can direct particular ISPs and ICHs to comply with their responsibilities under the Codes. ACMA can also implement mandatory industry standards where there is no code or the code is inadequate. Compliant ISPs are registered with ACMA and entitled to display a “family friendly” Ladybird seal.
Education and information are another aspect of the co-regulatory scheme. This is justified on the principle that industry and the community have their own responsibilities to comply with the codes and to help prevent inappropriate access by children.
It should be noted that ACMA and the Internet Industry Association regard parents and teachers as being in the best position to advise children and monitor their access, using the information resources available. Other information and advice sites are listed under “Further information”.
Email and internet content provided in real-time (e.g. chat rooms, live audio or video streaming) are not generally covered by the classification procedures or the industry codes (Victoria is a partial exception, with racially or religiously vilifying email being illegal).
Filters are programs that in some way block access to inappropriate material from websites, newsgroups, chat rooms and email. Filters can also restrict the results from search engines.
Labelling tools help filters by creating lists of sites. “Black” lists use the names of sites with offensive content to block access to them. “White” lists block everything except inoffensive sites. Content-based filters block access to sites based on key offensive words or on some photographic content that might be unsuitable for children. The different types of filter can be used in combination, depending on what is required.
Filter programs can operate on a home computer or via an ISP. Your ISP is obliged to provide information about filtering software and the filters they offer. ISPs must provide a filter approved in the internet Industry Association Codes of Practice. The NetAlert, Communicaitons Association and Internet Content Rating Association sites give more background information (see “Further information”).
Safe zones are networks suitable for young children and separated from the rest of the internet. They are available via subscription or through some ISPs. Specific children’s zones may also be hosted on commercial sites or supported by advertising.
It is important to remember that no tool is completely infallible. The consumer advice websites can help parents and guardians to choose the best strategy (see “Further information”).
Chat rooms are places where real-time conversations take place in a text mode. They are usually public, although private chat rooms are offered on some sites. Most people, including children, use pseudonyms in chat rooms so that a person’s real identity is not apparent. This means that sometimes a child may believe they are chatting to another 12-year-old, when it may in fact be a much older person. There have been instances where adults have attempted to exploit children by contacting them in chat rooms.
The current regulatory approach emphasises education and guided information for children. It is important that children know what personal details they can give out when they are online, for their general safety and for the security of the household as a whole. For useful websites, see “Further information”.