Concerns about children encountering inappropriate material on the internet are common, and with good reason. Research has shown that in the digital age, large percentages of children are exposed to sexually explicit, violent, or otherwise adult material, unsuitable for their age group. 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.
What Material Can Be Complained About?
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 Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
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, just as are X-rated films in most states (except the ACT and the Northern Territory). Content which 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 where they might be 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 Federal Government has announced plans to require Australian ISPs to block access to Refused Classification (RC) rated content on the internet.
Under the current version of the 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 that it will review the Refused Classification category before the mandatory filtering legislation is introduced.
It is anticipated that the RC Content list will be compiled from complaints made by members of 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 agencies overseas.
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 will be able to more effectively restrict access to RC content hosted overseas.
Filters, labels and safe zones
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.
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 which 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, Internet Industry Association and Internet Content Rating Association sites give more background 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.
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 chatrooms 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.