Successful world-first trials of an automated Netflix content rating tool have led media regulators to consider increased industry self-rating as the abundance of streaming movie and game services overwhelms the capabilities of Australia’s national classification scheme.

Australia’s existing content rating scheme “was not designed to manage changing technologies or the large volumes of content,” the Department of Communications and the Arts (DCA) noted in outlining a month-long review designed to “harmonise” regulation of online content.

Introduced in 2005, the National Classification Code is managed by the National Classification Scheme (NCS) first established in 1995.

The NCS was last reviewed in 2011 and amended in 2013 to allow for R18+-rated video games, which had become increasingly popular but were being refused classification under the previous system.

Intervening years had seen streaming services challenging the classification system once again, with services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and others taking a range of approaches to content classification.

Netflix, for example, maps much of its content to existing classification systems in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere but also uses non-NCS ratings such as ‘Adult’ for some of its content.

The UK’s British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) recently moved to allow Netflix to apply its own ratings “because of the sheer amount of material that’s out there,” head of compliance Craig Lapper told The Guardian.

“It’s not logistically viable for the BBFC to view everything in the traditional way.”

A flood of content

The explosion of content on streaming services mirrors a problem that led to the introduction of age ratings on mobile apps years ago – with Apple, for one, introducing a developer-led system that has created more than its share of confusion.

Self-regulation had perpetuated these challenges but “Australians and their families rely on classification ratings to inform their entertainment choices and they expect the advice to accurately reflect community standards,” Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said in announcing the review and its terms of reference.

The process would “modernise” the scheme “for different content and delivery platforms”, Fletcher said, with the scope of the review including an overhaul of Films Guidelines last updated in 2002.

Since then, “there have been significant technological and market changes as well as regulatory changes,” the discussion paper published for the review notes.

The review will update the Films Guidelines, as well as the Computer Games Guidelines and National Classification Code, with terms of reference including whether the classification categories are “still appropriate and useful”; whether Code provisions around themes, violence, sex, language, drug use, and nudity still reflect community standards and concerns; and whether the R18+ video-game scheme is working appropriately.

The review will also consider which content should be required to be classified; whether a consistent ratings scheme should apply across all delivery formats; and – reflecting the findings of a 2012 Australian Law Reform Commission review that presaged the challenges of a content explosion – whether industry should take over much of the classification burden.

There are signs the Australian regime could follow the BBFC’s lead, with the terms of reference noting “an opportunity for a new classification framework to enable industry to self-classify content across all platforms” under the oversight of an Australian government regulator.

Television broadcasters would continue to use trained staff to self-classify content as per the current model, but other industry sectors could use either trained staff or government-approved classification tools.

Two industry self-classification tools already approved for Australia, including the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) system – which was used to classify 317,550 for online and mobile games last year alone – and a ‘ Netflix Tool’ that was used to classify 1,923 Netflix offerings last year.

In November, Australia became the first country to use the Netflix Tool, which generates ratings based on the firm’s tagging technology with the oversight of DCA.

A review of the Netflix Tool pilot program found that the system generated the same rating as the NCC, or one higher, in 94 per cent of cases.

The review commenced this month and will accept submissions through to 19 February.