Blocking Websites = Burning Books

Burning Books and Websites PIC: BookShopBlog

I’m pretty sure the Inquisitr article (80 comments) is a bit of a beat-up job – and Asher Moses of Sydney Morning Herald  (zero comments) is riding in on Duncan Riley’s coattails. The government has said in the past that multiplayer games are inherently unclassifiable and I doubt that will change. 

The Australian Minister for Censorship has today confirmed what I’ve been reporting for nearly two years: online adult games including Second Life will be banned in Australia.

Incidentally, with regards to online games, some are boxed (closed systems such as Grand Theft Auto), some are box and server (multiplayer such as World of Warcraft) and some are downloadable clients or simply web based clients to a hosted server (Second Life, Habbo). There is still a basic lack of understanding about filters, blacklists and classification systems in Australia.

  1. Games must be classified by paying a licence fee etc, or be exempt. If you don’t submit your game to be classified it can be banned and filtered. The game will not be allowed in the country (if a box) and will be filtered (presumably banned at the Domain level – see below) until the game development company coughs up the licencing fee, if they think the Australian market place is worth it. It doesn’t matter if your game is for children or adults, if it’s not classified, your not allowed to distribute it. 
  2. Filters at an ISP level are opt-out – contact your ISP and name yourself as a pervert and they will remove the filter for you. Porn, graphic violence, dentists in Qld, and other mistakenly filtered sites are yours to peruse. If the game is deemed MA15+ (not General, not Children) then it is auto-filtered. Expect World of Warcraft teens to badger mum and dad to get the filter removed.  Once your game is classified it is made available to everyone online unless it is classified MA15+ in which case it’s only available to those who ask for the filter to be removed. 
  3. Filters at a Domain level – blacklisted sites that are not accessible under any circumstances. This blacklist has been around for a decade or more and gets updated regularly. Typically include Osama Bin Laden’s DIY bomb sites and known kiddyporn sites. No way Jose are you allowed to legally access these sites. But to be honest, if you know about them, you know other ways of getting to them. 

 … but I decided to bite anyway, and sent this email to classification.gov.au who handles OFLC (italic indents are quotes, everything else is mine): 

Dear Sir/Madam

My name is Laurel Papworth and I am a senior consultant in social media and online games in the Australia/Asia area.
I would like to know if the information below is accurate and still valid – AUSGAMERS, April, 2008. 

Exclusively online games are not submitted to the OFLC for classification. 

My original question (sent to the OFLC on August 22, 2005) was answered today when the OFLC’s Ron Robinson called me to discuss this topic (I sent a followup email a couple days ago after the GTA stuff jogged my memory of this ancient request). 

Ron let me know that World of Warcraft was not rated by the OFLC – in fact, was never even submitted for classification – it was a “waste of time” as the game is exclusively online, exclusively multiplayer, and has no defined start and end. Thus it is inherently unclassifiable

If World of Warcraft is no longer “inherently unclassifiable”, then I am attempting to determine if reports of potentially blocking Second Life, World of Warcraft and other multi user online games is correct. Particularly the issue of open unending games vs closed boxed games. 

Given that Second Life is not a game but a collaborative social space, will there also be an attempt to classify Facebook, MySpace and other “entertainment” sites?  As many of these sites also act as software platforms, will there be an attempt to classify games (“apps”) such as What’s My Stripper Name and others with adult concepts? 

Is the OFLC also examining classifying mobile social networking and gaming sites? iPhone applications comes to mind?  

Background: 

Senator Conroy’s spokesman said the filter would cover “computer games such as web-based flash games and downloadable games, if a complaint is received and the content is determined by ACMA to be Refused Classification”. All games that exceed MA15+ are deemed to be RC.

The filtering could also block “the importation of physical copies of computer games sold over the internet which have been classified RC”, the spokesman said.

Thankyou for your time and please note that I am seeking an official response to be used in presentation papers and articles,
Regards
Laurel Papworth

The issue is not whether the games are naughty or not, it’s the “ban first, unban later” approach. Club Penguin, under the guidelines would be blocked until Disney or whoever owns it now, submits (and pays for) a licence.  Second Life has 3 different versions – Teen Second Life which would need a Children’s Rating I presume, normal Second Life (education and wholesome entertainment) would need a General classification and Zindra the Adult Second Life (background check to make sure you are over 18) would need MA or R or similar. Open Sims (open source worlds) would also fall under the same umbrella and each one would need to be rated. 

So there’s a number of issues: major developers of online games need to know about Australia’s classification system and then pay for a licence. This is not selling boxed games on shelves where the distribution process is well known but services that are hosted in the States and elsewhere. User generated 3D worlds – think Google Lively on a mass scale in the future – will also full need to be classified. As a game player, you will need to convince the developers to submit for a licence, then tell your ISP to give you access. As web based java games are also included, that means any kid creating a game, up to an advertising agency making a viral *cough* game  through to a Facebook app or iPhone game. 

If classifications are to be required for iPhone apps and Facebook java applications (games and entertainment), that are free or make a few bucks each, how will developers pay for the licence fee?   If every game and website that has games is classified how is the influx dealt with? If Unity (game engine) or the free open sims (downloadable muiltiworlds) means a 14 year old can make a multiplayer 3D world and host it on a $7 a month server, how will we deal with that? And so on, and so forth. 

 

Stephen Conroy's department handles both innovation and social economy (left hand) and censorship and filtering and poor broadband (right hand)

Left Hand doesn't know what the Right Hand is doing: Stephen Conroy's Dept handles both innovation & social economy (left hand) and censorship & filtering & poor broadband (right hand) PIC: FoundShit

Ssshhhh. Listen. Hear it? ….  the sound of INNOVATION dying, one pixel at a time. Taking the CONVERSATION along with it. This is the slippery slope that started with YouTube and Facebook being blocked at schools and government departments, through Second Life and ‘adult’ games being filtered and ends with Facebook blocked (we might discuss court cases and stuff under subjudice!) and Twitter (teenagers might be harassed or do the harassing). Once we hand off responsibility to the Government rather than using collaborative meta-government tools, we lose control of what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to the protection vs censorship debate. 

So anyway, that’s a job for the new Government 2.0 TaskForce. Sorting out the classification system for user generated content and social worlds, as well as social distribution systems. Unfortunately the Taskforce first act was to make a fundamental online community booboo – please make us a logo kthnxbai – but hopefully they will learn as time goes on.  See here for more information on the perils of running online design competitions. Be careful of asking members to do stuff before you have built the community –  GoGetFunkd or NoSpec will gitcha!

The Taskforce could of course work with other governments internationally to fund metagovernment microformats for the billion or so in the Internet community to rate and review websites. Then responsible adults (parents, teachers) could set filters  such as only allow sites voted suitable for children by a minimum of 560,000 people – collaborative filtering such as the Slashdot system.  The way the world should be working, in my view.  Ah well, one day…