Untangling the net: the scope of content caught by mandatory internet filtering

Publication date: 
16 December 2009

The following report considers a number of key challenges the Australian Federal Government faces in designing the regulatory framework and the reach of its planned mandatory internet filter. Previous reports on the mandatory filtering scheme have concentrated on the filtering technologies, their efficacy, their cost and their likely impact on the broadband environment. This report focuses on the scope and the nature of content that is likely to be caught by the proposed filter and on identifying associated public policy implications.

We recognise that the Federal Government faces real challenges in balancing the risks posed by the online media environment with the opportunities that environment presents. In preparing this report, the authors acknowledge that the Federal Government is still considering the detail of how mandatory filtering will be implemented and how classification will work under the scheme. Our research is not intended to pre-empt those decisions but to offer constructive input, to highlight key public policy challenges and to inform public dialogue.

This report was prepared by three senior academics in the media studies field, Professor Catharine Lumby, Professor Lelia Green and Professor John Hartley. We have all published extensively on the issues of online media, media content regulation, young people and media consumption, and public policy. As members of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, we are currently collaborating on a large research project that considers the risks and opportunities for children in the online and mobile media era. The research on which this report is based was supported by the Internet Industry Association and we acknowledge their assistance. We would also like to acknowledge the input of Professor Stuart Cunningham, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT, and the research assistance of Paul Taylor.
The Federal Government faces unprecedented challenges in media content regulation. The online environment is one in which media consumers are increasingly becoming media producers, with enormously varying levels of skill and distribution. The means of distribution and consumption range across content developed and distributed by established media organisations, through emerging online sites, to amateur and peer-to-peer content.

A neglected aspect of public policy that needs to be considered in the internet filtering debate is the question of how we sensibly balance the risks posed by online material, particularly to children, and the opportunities provided to the broader community to participate in sometimes controversial debates, to access and debate material pertaining to political and social issues, and to allow reasonable adults to make decisions about what they consume or produce online.

Australia’s current system for regulating media content has evolved erratically, reactively and inconsistently. The Federal Government has inherited not only the challenges of the new media era but equally the deficiencies of the regulatory regime developed for past media eras. It is clear that Australia needs to avoid simply applying an inadequate and inconsistent media content regulation regime to a very different and emergent media landscape. There is a clear need to rethink media content regulation in the online era –a need supported by the research detailed in the body of this report.

The challenge of regulating media content in the online era is also an opportunity to examine the rationale of media content regulation from first principles and to engage the public and all stakeholders in a dialogue about the purpose and scope of classification.