Editorial: ACCM on the Restricted Access System Declaration October 7, 2021

Guest authored by our president, Prof Elizabeth Handsley 

The eSafety Commissioner has called for comment on the Discussion Paper on the RAS. Here’s an edited version of ACCM’s submission:

Regulatory measures to protect the interests of children as media users are always welcome, but such measures are only ever as good as their understanding of just what children’s interests are.

ACCM finds the Discussion Paper pays only passing attention to these, while focussing heavily on the needs and interests of industry. 

Children develop through different stages, and they have different needs as media consumers depending what stage they’re at.

Yet the paper lumps all children together. Moreover, the proposed system, like the existing one, relies on the National Classification Scheme, which likewise pays no attention to the evolution of children’s needs and capacities.

ACCM also notes the paper refers only to R18+ content, without explaining why there is no proposal to protect children even from material in the other restricted category, namely MA15+.

It is worth noting that very little content is actually classified R18+, because that classification sets a very high bar.

There is still a large amount of content at MA15+ especially in video games – that would shock many adults and is certainly considered unsuitable for children….The ACCM submits that the RAS should in some way incorporate categories below R18+, at least MA15+. 

Having said all that, ACCM sees this paper and the process underlying it as yet another reminder of how deficient the National Classification Scheme (NCS) is, in that it fails to address the needs and interests of children at different ages and stages. … Reliance on the NCS in this context, in addition to the classification of films and games, points to the urgent need to reform that scheme.

A comprehensive review was commenced in 2019, and we are still waiting  …. [for] what the government plans to do in response.

ACCM submits that if the government wishes to fix the problem of children’s access to online content, it needs to fix the criteria and processes by which content is judged to be suitable for children or otherwise.

Ideally this should be done before any new regulatory scheme is introduced, before a culture grows up around the old criteria. The paper also suffers from a lack of subtlety as to the careful balancing process that must go on when children’s rights are at stake.

To fulfill Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the starting point must be that children’s interests are a primary consideration (article 3). …. there are, broadly, two important matters that need to be weighed against each other, namely children’s right to seek, receive and impart information via the media (article13) and the various rights that can be breached when children access inappropriate content (eg articles 6(2) (survival and development),16 (privacy), 19 (violence), 23  (disability), 24 (health), 28 (education)). 

Speaking of children’s needs or interests is no simple matter, and it requires at least the same level of attention and discussion as the needs and interests of industry. Yet the paper persistently speaks about the latter needs and interests as if they are paramount.

For example …at page 7 the paper goes so far as to suggest it is interested only in the views of industry and not, by implication, in those of other parts of the community, which have a huge stake in the outcome of a process like this.

Another shortcoming of the paper–and by extension the proposed scheme as a whole –is that it focusses exclusively on the nature of the content available online, whereas a significant part of the concern regarding children’s engagement with online content is to do with the way the content is presented and delivered, that is, by persuasive design. We have mentioned the interests of children, and their rights in international law; another set of rights and interests that come into the frame are those of parents and others who care for children.

Parents have the right to be supported in their role of keeping children safe and protecting their rights (article 18 of CRC), and this should be taken into account in the formulation of the RAS. This is especially so considering that the burden is likely to fall on parents and carers to monitor children’s experiences and report any difficulties.