Government censorship of the internet took another significant but unheralded step forward last Friday with the release of guidelines for industry having to put in place systems for restricting access for certain internet and mobile content.

ACMA also announced its period for public comment on the proposed Restricted Access Systems Declaration (RAS).

The ACMA papers and consultation period follow Government legislation passed earlier this year which was in part a reaction to the Ch10 Big Brother “turkey slapping” incident where live streamed content on the internet was deemed inappropriate for general viewing (even if it occurred at 2am and was only a few seconds long and seen by only handful of people). The legislation brings new requirements for anyone who hosts or provides links/access to content (film or TV) which is classified MA15+ or above where the connection is based in Australia.

In order to ensure that a 15, 16 or 17 year old can legitimately access or download their favourite TV show or film over the internet or mobile phone, after 20 January, 2008, the person will have to pass through an “age verification device” and provide evidence as to their correct age.

This development poses many difficulties for industry in complying with this legislation and regime, as well in designing and defining a system which provides access to people under 18 and in providing appropriate ‘evidence’. As the ACMA paper says, “section 4 of the BSA requires ACMA to regulate designated content/hosting services in a manner that enables public interest considerations to be addressed in a way that does not impose undue financial and administrative burdens on industry and will readily accommodate technological change”.

This is the rub; designing a meaningful RAS that does not impose undue burdens on industry. The trend of Government imposing greater restrictions and filters on the internet is only just starting – we will have a China-style internet censorship based on the interests of a noisy but minority Christian lobby to which the politicians on both sides too easily bend.

The downside of such conditions being imposed is that two consequences may occur:

  1. Content will be moved and hosted off-shore so that these new rules don’t apply and
  2. previous TV self-assessed MA 15+ content available for download may be assessed at the lesser M rating so as to avoid the RAS. Either scenario works against the intent of the new system and legislation.

The Government and Christian lobbies should be careful what they ask for as they could end up pushing Australian businesses, who generally want to do the right thing, off-shore where Australians will access content unregulated. Either that or businesses will simply decide not to establish new business models in this highly regulated market where the consumer will be the loser.

This article originally appeared on Parker & Partners’ blog, Off the Record