In Australia, concerns about media influence mean that we regulate the media in a number of ways:
- Copycat behaviour. Both the Free TV Australia and the Advertising Standards Bureau have guidelines for the advertising of food and beverages to children which state that they should not promote an ‘inactive lifestyle’. Free TV Australia and Commercial Radio Australia have guidelines relating to the portrayal of suicide which arises from this concern about copycat behaviour.
- Protecting children. In Australia films and publications are classified on a scale from G to R18+. These age recom- mendations and restrictions aim to protect children from material likely to upset or disturb. Likewise there are restrictions on what can be broadcast on television in the morning and in the early afternoon when children get home from school. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner provides education material for young people and children, it has reporting mechanisms for cyberbullying and has takedown powers.
- Protecting adults. In addition to protecting children, the classification of media texts helps to protect adults from material that is likely to offend. A classification system with consumer advice – which warns consumers when a program might contain violence or strong language – means that adults can make informed decisions about the material they watch. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner also protects adults from online harms, In a world first, The Online Safety Act of 2021 extended cyberbullying protections to adults over 18 to prevent acts such as threats of violence and doxing.
- Protecting cultural identity. In Australia, minimum requirements for the amount of Australian content on television and radio reflect the belief that overseas content may erode our cultural identity. The Australian Content Standard (2005) mandates a 55% quota of Australian content on television. Commercial radio must broadcast minimum quotas of Australian music.
- Protecting media diversity. In Australia, we have laws governing foreign media and cross media ownership to prevent media organisations having too much power. According to cross media ownership laws, there should be no fewer than five independent media groups in metropolitan markets. There are also controls on foreign investment in Australian media organisations. These laws attempt to ensure that there are five distinct media companies in metropolitan cities. ‘News Media Bargaining Code’ has been proposed to ensure news organisations are paid an appropriate amount by Google and Facebook.
- Misinformation. Misinformation is a concern in the digital age, as it can spread rapidly and have harmful consequences for individuals, societies, and democracies. Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation is a voluntary code that was published in February 2021 by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI). It currently has 8 signatories: Adobe, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and Twitter. Participating companies release annual transparency reports about their efforts under the code, which will help improve understanding of online misinformation and disinformation in Australia over time. Transparency reports are published annually. In their transparency reports, signatories to the code reveal the steps they are taking to combat misinformation.
NATIONAL CLASSIFICATION SCHEME
The classification of films, video games and publications in Australia is the responsibility of the Classification Board. A Classification Board and Classification Review Board make decisions about the classification of films, video games and publications which are available for sale and hire in Australia.
Under the Commonwealth Classifications Act, the following matters are taken into account when classifying films, video games and publications:
- the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults;
- the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the publication, film or computer game;
- the general character of the publication, film or computer game, including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character;
- the persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published.
Classification decisions are made according to the following principles:
- adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want;
- minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
- everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;
- the need to take account of community concerns about: depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.
In Australia, there are a number of classification categories, including: G, PG, M15+, MA15+, and R. If a film, computer game or publication is deemed inappropriate by the Classification Board, it is refused classification and prohibited from sale in Australia.
Between March 2014 and June 2015, the Classification Board refused classification for 220 video games, four times more than they had in the previous twenty years. The bans were a result of the International Age Rating Coalition tool which is used to classify the enormous number of video games being released digitally.
Due to their interactivity, video games are treated differently to other forms of media like films and books. As Ron Curry, head of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, told The Guardian: “The sad reality is that the national classification system applies a stricter set of rules for video games than it does for pretty much every other kind of content, reflecting the early 1990s era in which those rules were written, when video games were associated with a moral panic and certainly not treated as the mainstream medium and artistic discipline that they are.”
The 2019 role-playing game Disco Elysium was refused classification in Australia due to “matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena”.
On March 18, 2021, ‘Disco Elysium: The Final Cut’ received an R18+ rating two months after the Australian Classification Board refused to classify the game. One of the main reasons for its ban is the promotion of “speed”, a common street name for a “stimulant drug” used to power up playable characters. Its strong promotion of drug use as well as its highly potential negative influence caused its ban.
THE AUSTRALIAN COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA AUTHORITY
The ACMA is a government body responsible for regulating broadcasting and online content in Australia. Its responsibilities include:
- promoting self-regulation and competition in the communications industry, while protecting consumers and other users
- fostering an environment in which electronic media respect community standards and respond to audience and user needs
- managing access to the radiofrequency spectrum
- representing Australia ‘s communications interests internationally.
The ACMA has developed codes of practice for television and radio in conjunction with the industry FreeTV Australia and Commercial Radio Australia. These codes govern the content of television and radio in Australia.
The ACMA also helps to regulate the ownership of commercial media organisations in Australia through a register of controlled media groups.
Under current media ownership laws in Australia foreign investment in the Australia media is permitted but the mass media is considered a ‘sensitive sector’ and any foreign investment, regardless of its size must be approved by the Treasurer
THE ADVERTISING STANDARDS BOARD
The ASB oversees a national system of advertising self-regulation. The Advertising Standards Board is a free service to handle consumer complaints about advertising. According to the ASB website, these issues might include “the use of language, the discriminatory portrayal of people, concern for children, portrayals of violence, sex, sexuality and nudity, health and safety, and marketing of food and beverages to children.” The ASB has a number of codes which govern the content of advertisements. The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Practice aims to ensure that “advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful and that they have been prepared with a sense of obligation to the consumer and society and fair sense of responsibility to competitors.”
A list of complaints can be found at the ASB website. Each report includes a description of the advertisement, excerpts of complaints made by consumers, the advertiser’s response to the allegations and the ASB’s determination on the matter.
Office of the eSafety Commissioner
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner is an independent government body established in 2015 to help keep Australians safe online. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner has a range of regulatory functions and powers, which aim to safeguard Australians at risk of online harms and promote safer, more positive online experiences. It regulates a range of online harms, including cyberbullying, online threats and scams. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner can take a range of actions to address online harms, including: providing education and resources to help people stay safe online; Investigating complaints about online harms; requiring online service providers to take action to remove or disable harmful content; issuing fines to online service providers that fail to comply with the law. In a world first, The Online Safety Act of 2021 extended cyberbullying protections to adults over 18.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The ACCC’s role in media regulation is likely to continue to evolve in the future, as the media industry continues to change and adapt to new technologies. The ACCC protects consumers from misleading or deceptive conduct in the media industry. For example, the ACCC can investigate and take action against media companies that make false or misleading claims about their products or services. Most recently, the ACCC developed the News Media Bargaining Code in response to concerns that media platforms, particularly Google and Facebook, should pay for news made available on their platforms. In Why Privacy Matters, Neil Edwards suggests that consumer protection, such as Australia’s ACCC, will play an increasingly important role in protect the privacy of citizens, prevent their exploitation by media platforms, and safeguard democratic participation. He notes: “Consumer protection will require new privacy rules, but it’s not obviously apparent precisely what privacy and consumer protection rules will be needed to protect the situated consumer. If we do nothing, we are likely to have business as usual, in which “free” services are provided in exchange for exploitation, in which privacy settings and data security protection are left to the self-management of overwhelmed and underinformed consumers, and in which situated consumers have no meaningful redress against exploitation and manipulation.” In 2018, The Conversation revealed that it would take 244 hours per year, or six working weeks, to read the policies for every digital service that a person uses. Consumer protection law needs to acknowledge that consumers are increasingly busy, taking steps to protect them from deception, unfairness, and the exploitation of data that comes with so-called ‘free’ services.
News media bargaining code
The imbalance between media platforms and traditional news organisation is one issue the Australian government has sought to solve with the News Media Bargaining Code. This legistlation attempts to support news media by making Google and Facebook pay for news linked to on their platforms. According to The Guardian: “The code aims to address the imbalance in bargaining power between the news media and tech giants and force the platforms to pay for the value they receive from use of Australian journalism.”
The code was proposed as a result of declining advertising revenue, cutbacks and closures in the Australian news media landscape. According to ASIC, in 2019 Google made $4.3 billion in advertising.
Under the legislation:
- News companies bargain with Facebook or Google individually or together to strike a deal on paying for news. As of March 2023, Google and Facebook reached agreements with a number of Australian news media businesses. These agreements are confidential, so it is not possible to know how much money is being paid. However, the Australian government has said that the agreements are “fair and reasonable.”
- If they don’t reach an agreement in three months, a decision is made by an arbitrator.
- Only news organisations that earn $150,000 annually can participate.
- Google and Facebook would be required to give news organisations insight into their search algorithms, potentially allowing them to manipulate rankings.
According to Tech Policy Press, the legislation has led to $140 million being invested into the Australian news ecosystem. Other countries—including Canada, the UK, South Africa, and Brazil—are also moving ahead with similar laws.
Issues with the News Media Bargaining Code
- Tech giants call the code ‘unworkable’. Google initially called the code “unworkable” and declared that it forces them to “pay unreasonable and exorbitant amounts”. The company has since issued an update declaring that it wants to avoid “legislative proposals that would break the fundamental principle of the web”. In the update, the company revealed its News Showcase, allowing publishers to curate their stories across Google services and receive regular revenue payments for it. Early in 2023, Meta declared that the code was “punitive” and “untidy”.
- Impact smaller publishers and YouTubers. Only publishers who make more than $150,000 per annum are allowed to bargain for news with Facebook and Google. According to the former editor-in-chief of NineMSN, the legislation will have a “devastating effect” on smaller digital publishers who will not be able to bargain for payment of their news, gain insight into search rankings and rely on click throughs from social media for their survival. Bruce Elle, the General manager of the Latrobe Valley Express, told ABC News: “I think it’s fair to say that both google and Facebook rank one and two in referral to our website.” A group of publishers—including Junkee, Broadsheet, Concrete Playground and Urban List—told the ACCC that the code will send them broke. They suggested that it will just “further entrench the large traditional media companies and accidentally destroy media diversity in the process.” A number of Australian content creators, such as FriendlyJordies have noted that giving established media organisations an insight into the way Google’s algorithms operate would make it harder for independent creators like himself to reach an audience because established media organisations would have an advantage in the rankings. As he noted on his YouTube channel: ““If News Corp and Nine/Fairfax get those insights they will know exactly what the algorithm wants at every moment, serving YouTube up some genetically modified clickbait while all us independent news makers play Marco Polo with it wondering, “How am I going to link massive military expenditure increases with Jake Paul?” As such, we will fall further and further down the Recommended Videos tab while Murdoch and his cronies go up and up to the point that News Corp and Fairfax will have such an unchallenged clench hold on the platform that it’ll be like the noughties all over again.”
- There is no guarantee the funds would be invested back into journalism. As Peter Lewis noted in The Guardian: “…there is no requirement the negotiated payment would be spent on actual journalists, rather than filling the pockets of shareholders – something that should be persuasive in future negotiations.” That said, the ABC and SBS now receive revenue from both Facebook and Google for news shared on these platforms, allowing the ABC to employ fifty additional journalists across regional Australia. As ABC’s managing director David Anderson said: “We decided at the very start of these negotiations that any net revenue we received from these deals would go where it is needed most – and that is in regional Australia.”
- Established media would have an unfair advantage. The News Media Bargaining Code gives Australia’s biggest media companies an advantage when it comes to creating content favoured by Facebook and Google’s algorithms. Google suggests this would allow these companies to “game the rankings at the expense of others.” According to a press release by Google: “An obligation to share details about our algorithm changes that would provide an unfair advantage to large news businesses and help them feature more prominently in organic search results at the expense of other businesses, creators and website owners.”
The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation is a voluntary code that was published in February 2021 by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI). It currently has 8 signatories: Adobe, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and Twitter.
Participating companies release annual transparency reports about their efforts under the code, which will help improve understanding of online misinformation and disinformation in Australia over time. Transparency reports were published in May 2021 and May 2022, and are available to read here.
In their transparency reports, signatories to the code reveal the steps they are taking to combat misinformation.
In 2022, Google took action to limit disinformation from the pro-Chinese influence network Dragonbridge. An article in The Register notes that the network includes content on topics like the US COVID-19 response, racial inequality, political divisions, inflations and other controversies. As the Google disinformation transparency report notes: “In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reion operation (IO) network’s lifetime. Despite their scale and profuse content production, DRAGONBRIDGE achieved practically no organic engagement from real viewers — in 2022, the majority of DRAGONBRIDGE channels had 0 subscribers when Google disrupted them, and over 80% of DRAGONBRIDGE videos had fewer than 100 views.”
Google’s ‘About this Result’ feature provides users of their search engine with more information about search results, including the source of the information. According to Google in 2022, this feature was viewed was viewed 641,324 times in Australia.
Similarly, Google also invests in media literacy campaigns that “increase critical thinking skills around identifying different manipulation tactics used to spread misinformation – from using emotional language to cherry picking information.” They also provide the Fact Check explorer which allows people to search for information that uses the ‘ClaimReview’ HTML mark-up. According to Google, FactCheck Explorer only includes publishers that are ‘algorithmically determined to be an authoritative source of information”.
Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation Bill
In 2023, the government proposed the Combating Misinformation and Disinformation Bill. The bill aims to combat disinformation and misinformation by giving ACMA the power to make platforms retain information about misinformation, force industry to develop a code of practice, make their own code of practice, and fine platforms $6.8 million or 5% of their global turnover whichever is greater for breaching the ACMA code on misinformation.
2023 Murdoch media inquiry
Australia has some of the most concentrated media ownership in the world. News Corporation, owned by the Murdoch family, controls over two thirds of all the print media outlets in Australia. The 2023 Murdoch Media Inquiry Bill seeks to investigate largely “unchecked and unchallenged” power that the Murdoch empire wields. The Bill notes: “The impact on democracy is corrosive and has eroded trust in journalism and public institutions.”
In Independent Australia, Martin Hirst doubts an inquiry will curtail the power of the Murdoch empire: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a single reform coming out of these previous inquiries that in any way curtailed the power of the Murdoch machine. In fact, successive governments have gone out of their way to subsidise News Corp’s profits through regional media grants, special considerations for supposedly increasing coverage of women’s sport and a mysterious – and as yet unexplained – handout from the Morrison Government before the last election.”
“I think there’s almost no chance of the commission getting off the ground,” he continues. “Murdoch’s army of loyal thugs will try to bash the idea to death in the pages and on the airwaves under its control. And it’s fair to imagine that well-paid lobbyists working on behalf of Kerry Stokes, Peter Costello and others will snake through the corridors of Canberra to quietly kill it off.”
Australian content quota for streaming platforms
The Broadcasting Services Act (1992) requires all commercial free-to-air television licensees to broadcast an annual minimum transmission quota of 55 per cent Australian programming between 6am and midnight on their primary channel. For the national broadcasters, there is a requirement that the ABC and SBS through legislation and their charters contribute to a sense of national identity and reflect Australia’s multicultural society. No such quotas exist for streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Disney+. According to the 2022 Deloitte Media Consumer Survey, on average Australians now spend 9.3 hours a week watching streaming services vs 11 hours watching free-to-air television. The Australian Netflix catalogue presently features around 2–2.5 per cent Australian content and in the absence of regulation, the SVOD market is unlikely to generate significant investment in new Australian content. According a Senate report, there is “intensifying competition from new entrants not bound by the same regulation as existing service providers”. FreeTV told this government inquiry that “audiences are fragmenting, the costs of making content are increasing, advertising revenues are declining and consumers are quickly forming new viewing habits’. Changes in consumer behaviour mean that current legislation to promote Australian screen content is inadequate. Mr Matt Day, actor and MEAA member, stated that content quotas ‘need to extend to the brave new worlds of digital streaming as well’. Former communications minister Paul Fletcher said: “Today, the free-to-air networks have an obligation to show a certain amount of Australian content. They have to pay to produce or show that. But streaming platforms like Netflix or YouTube don’t have such obligations, even though they’re capturing a huge number of eyeballs in the Australian market, and in the case of Netflix, substantial revenue,” Netflix and other streaming platforms are likely to fight any move by the government to force them to comply with local content quotas.