There is a flurry behind the scenes in Government as an extraordinary coalition builds to oppose attempts at censoring media content online.

As reported last week, the Government plans to pass legislation that would apply film classification guidelines to electronically-delivered media content, with extraordinary ramifications for e-books, online versions of magazines and even bloggers.

Crikey understands that since an “exposure draft” of proposed legislation was narrowly circulated about a month ago it has been superseded at least twice as drafters get to grips with the unintended consequences of what they have done.

Now a coalition including the worthy Australian Publishers Association, the edgy s-x industry advocates the Eros Foundation and the mobile phone industry are pointing out what the problems might be.

Senator Coonan has said that the proposed legislation is aimed at regulating p-rnography on mobile phones, and won’t affect hard copy publications such as books and magazines – but as the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association, Maree McCaskill pointed out this morning, there are already many e-books and in the future this will be a vital method of getting material to readers.

Meanwhile Robbie Swan of the Eros Foundation asks how the e-book of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita would fare under the proposed legislation. The film got an R rating – but the book is more explicit.

The possibility is that the hard copy of the book would remain on unrestricted sale while the digital version would be heavily restricted or banned. Magazines such as Dolly, Girlfriend and Ralph, all of which canvass s-xual matters, are presently sold unrestricted in newsagents, but would have to at least gain classification and possibly be restricted in their online form. Not to mention violent books, including Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin. The list of potential problems goes on and on.

It seems clear that all these complications were unintended. Coonan first proposed legislation to regulate content on the internet and mobile phones years ago, and this report emerged from her department in April last year, recommending uniform regulation of content across platforms and an “adapted” application of the national classification scheme policed by mobile phone companies and other “content providers”.

In speeches at the time, it is clear Coonan had porn on mobile phones and the internet in her sights. Shortly after the report was issued, the Big Brother turkey slapping incident greatly increased the pressure for tough and fast regulation. The industry believes that this was what sent things ballistic.

An exposure draft of the bill – “a real dog’s breakfast” says one source who has read it — was sent about a month ago to only a narrow range of players including Telstra, Optus and the Internet Industry Association. A few copies have leaked, but key content-making bodies including publishers have not been put “in the loop”. Meanwhile this draft has been superseded – but nobody outside the department seems to have seen the latest version.

It seems clear that the drafters will be back at work before this Bill hits Parliament, but the worry in the industry is that if it goes before the Senate in anything like its current form then the Family First fuelled “family values” debate could see us with silly laws passed before anyone can pull back.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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