Posted by Kaaren Koomen of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, to at least 'inet' and 'link' emailing lists, on 16 December 1996
Recently there has been some discussion on the `inet' mailing list regarding content regulation of the Internet and the ABA's role in this area. There have been some important points raised, and the ABA was invited to comment and clarify some of these matters. Below is a summary of some of the ABA's recommendations which relate to these issues.
In July 1996 the ABA completed its investigation into the content of on-line services and presented its report to the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston.
In its report the ABA recommended that a substantially self regulatory framework be developed for on-line services in Australia. The two main recommendations of the ABA were the development of codes of practice for service providers and the development of voluntary Internet content labelling schemes.
The main elements of the regulatory framework for codes of practice include:
The ABA notes that a number of organisations seeking to represent the on-line community have already emerged and a number of codes of practice have been drafted. The ABA supports and encourages this process.
The ABA Report found that the Internet and other on-line services offer an unprecedented level of variety, as well as quantity, of information and entertainment from around the world. However, many parents and supervisors of minors consider that some of this content is inappropriate for minors.
In the course of investigating this issue, the on-line community brought to the ABA's a new technology called the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). PICS is a set of technical specifications which allow the labelling of Internet content.
PICS itself is value neutral but its specifications allow any organisation or individual to develop a labelling system which reflects their tastes and standards and, if they wish, share these labels with other Internet users. Labelling can be applied directly by content providers or it can be applied by a third party in accordance with an established labelling system.
One labelling scheme which has been gaining increasing prominence in the international arena is the scheme developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). RSAC has pioneered a novel approach to `self-disclosure ratings'. The RSACi (RSAC for the Internet) labelling model enables content providers to complete an on-line questionnaire about the depiction of sex, nudity, violence and language on their site.
The answers to the questionnaire automatically determine a rating level for the particular content category. Sites which have been labelled using the RSAC questionnaire are given a rating of between zero and four on the topics sex, nudity, violence and language.
What means is that, if they wish, parents and supervisors can set their PICS compatible software to block out content which has been given a label which indicates that the content may be for them or those in their care. Importantly, those who are not concerned to block their own access to Internet content need not activate those tools.
The ABA notes that Microsoft's new Browser, the Internet Explorer 3.0 has incorporated the PICS and RSAC standards. The ABA understands that Netscape's new browser, Navigator 4, will also contain them. CompuServe (US and Europe) have committed to label all of its content with the RSAC system and organisations such as Playboy and CNet have also rated their sites with RSAC.
RSAC has also been supported by popular blocking software companies Microsystems Software, Spyglass Inc. (formerly SurfWatch) and id Software, the makers of the popular video game Doom.
The ABA is of the view that labelling systems, such as RSACi, may provide a useful labelling scheme which Australian content providers may wish to utilise to empower parents and supervisors to exercise some control over the content which children in their care access, without restricting what others access on-line.
The ABA has not proposed that labelling be compulsory. However, the ABA believes that there may be a commercial imperative for many content providers to label their content to maximise the access to those utilising PICS compatible software.
In respect to content which is refused classification in Australia under the National Classification Code, it should be noted that the Office of Film and Literature Classification, in conjunction with the various state and territory Attorneys-General, have responsibilities in this area for film, videos, computer games and publications. The ABA does not classify any of this content.
Content which is currently Refused Classification includes child pornography. (For more detailed information on what is `refused classification' see the OFLC publication "Guidelines for Classifications of Films and Videotapes" - July 1996).
One of the many options canvassed in the Issues Paper was the viability of a `refused access list' (RAL). The discussion about the RAL explored the possibility of blocking access to content which was known to be Refused Classification, and sought comment on this issue. It was never suggested that the RAL should be applied to content other than content which is `illegal' in other media.
In any event, the ABA considered the advice received in submissions and took the view that the proposal for an RAL canvassed in the Issues Paper should not proceed for a range of reasons. A full discussion of this can be found at pp. 93-100 of the ABA Report.
The Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston in his speech to the `intiaa' breakfast in early July, the Minister stated that the government will work `with the industry to develop workable, flexible systems of regulation that foster and encourage this competition, within the overall context of our post-1997 arrangements, while protecting the interests of all Australians'.
The Minister also said that `we will develop a national framework based on industry codes of practice, which will involve amendments to what is currently called the Broadcasting Services Act'.
We trust this clarifies some of the points of discussion on the Inet mailing list. Further information about the ABA's on-line services investigation can be obtained at http://www.dca.gov.au/aba/invest.htm. Further information about PICS can be obtained at http://www.w3org/pub/WWW/PICS and about RSAC at http://www.rsac.org.
If you would like any further details, please contact Ms Kaaren Koomen, Manager, On-line Services, as follows:e-mail: email@example.com
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Last Amended: 16 December 1996
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