Judge content by its character, not its medium

This week Andrew has blogged about Amy Adams' kicking off an ambitious programme of policy review and work that relates to Convergence (read his blog post).

First cab off the rank in the Convergence workstream is the Discussion Document on Content Regulation, released by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. They have been given the task of sorting out the convergence challenge around entertainment content and the mashing together of New Zealand's the broadcast and publication classification regimes (the Broadcasting Act and the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act).

I find content convergence really interesting for a couple of reasons.

  • the smash-up of regulatory regimes makes for some farcical situations (e.g. TV you recorded on your mySky 6 weeks ago is now a publication and not a broadcast so you better not let your kids watch that now-incorrectly labelled episode of the Walking Dead)
  • there are some genuine public safety and harm issues around objectionable material and in particular child sex abuse imagery (pro tip: it's not porn, don't call it that)
  • New Zealanders aren't just accessing their entertainment from New Zealand organisations. Netflix is here, and international competition isn't going away. Therefore, our old, border-enforceable meatspace way of doing things has to be adapted to an Internet-first way of thinking.

But what's our interest here at InternetNZ? One of the (many) great things about working here is that we're crystal clear on our objectives, goals, our principles and we even have a set of agreed policy principles, which are spelt out on our site (InternetNZ Policy Principles).

So how does content convergence, which includesusing the Internet to deliver entertainment content, stack up? As a matter of principle we think that:

  • laws and policies should work with the architecture of the Internet, not against it
  • technology changes quickly so laws and policies should focus on activity.

So, from where I'm sitting there is a pretty clear and compelling rationale for changing the law governing content provision and classification. If the old differences no longer apply in the same way, and the law is creating burdens to create new businesses and leverage new opportunities presented by the Internet, then we should be looking to create law that deals with the activities and makes compliance easy for everyone.

As I see it, the point of a classification regime is, at its heart, about keeping "pure filth" (the collective noun for objectionable material) away from our people and ensuring that New Zealanders can make informed decisions about the entertainment they consume. The rest, it would seem, flows from there. In saying that, here's some questions and observations I have already.

How real is the option of new law?
Call me a cynical policy analyst, but is the option to undo the broadcasting and classification Acts genuine? Will officials really be willing to totally wipe away their existing regulatory regimes to replace them with something new and unknown? I certainly hope so. To be honest, I can't see modifying either broadcasting or classification law as a tenable medium term solution.

How many ratings?
Why does the same content have to be classified, or assessed by multiple companies for multiple mediums?
That seems both inefficient and pointless. Which leads me to...

Content is content, is content.
I keep coming back to that point. Content should be classified the same and treated the same, up to a point, across all mediums. We should be able to figure out an agreed, consistent minimum classification regime that is the same across everything.

When I watch The Walking Dead (which I love FYI), why can't it be classified the same regardless of whether its on TV2, Neon or bought on DVD? The differences for broadcast TV/radio and it's one-to-many nature could be dealt with through an additional, over the top, complaints and responsibilities component of law. But the underlying system informing us if content is appropriate for adults, children, teens, if it contains violence or sexual content should be the same.

That's starting to sound like technology-neutral law to me. 

So. What do you think? Have I completely missed the point? I'm going to keep thinking, keep scrawling and keep talking to people about this in preparation for submissions closing on October 16. If you have opinions, thoughts, feels, visceral reactions. email me - I love talking policy!

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