While the lack of an adults-only rating for video games hogs all the headlines when it comes to gaming and Australia, there's a far more sinister threat lurking on the horizon: internet censorship. But how does this affect gaming?
Proposals currently working their way through the system (it's important to note these aren't law yet, and may well be shot down before becoming so) would require that all internet service providers in Australia sign up to the federal government's filtering program, which would compile a list of banned content and block that content from appearing on a user's computer.
The filter would not just include the really nasty stuff, like child porn and terrorist activity, but expand to include anything that was "refused classification" under the nation's content ratings laws. While this would mostly concern things like films (stuff like snuff flicks...pornography rated "X" is OK, as it's been rated) or comics (like some of Japan's more...extreme offerings), because of the country's classification laws, it would also expand to cover gaming material.
This means that if a game is refused classification (RC) in Australia - like, say, NFL Blitz, or Getting Up - content related to these games would be added to the ISP filter. Throwing up a range of questions, foremost of those being, what happens when an otherwise harmless website - like, say, this one - hosts material from those games (screenshots, trailers, etc) that is totally fine in the US or Japan or Europe, but that has been refused classification in Australia?
The "good" news is, not much. The Australian Department of Broadband Communication has told Kotaku that when RC content is flagged and added to the filter - and remember, it has to be reported in a complaint first to be flagged, the government won't be actively on the look-out for stuff - it won't block the entire website. Only the URL of an actual image or video clip would be filtered. So if Kotaku or IGN or any other media outlet based in the US was displaying material that had been refused classification, you wouldn't lose access to the entire site, just the parts displaying the RC content.
Things are even less stringent when it comes to online games. Because the wheels are in motion to address the nation's lack of an adults-only rating in Australia, the "government's approach to filtering online games will be developed drawing on this consultation process". In other words, it's a wait and see approach, the results of the discussion papers (or even a clear indication gleaned from them of the public's wishes) into expanding Australia's game ratings to determine whether things like massively-multiplayer online titles or online shooters deemed RC are included in the filter or not.
Until this time, games will be entirely excluded from the filter. So if an MMO title is refused classification in Australia, and you manage to import it from overseas (which is technically illegal), you'll be good to go, as it won't be blocked.
This is all, of course, absurd. You can't fully censor the internet any more than you can control the rising and setting of the sun. All the federal government is doing here is displaying how remarkably out of touch they are on contemporary issues of censorship, and how ignorant the federal minister responsible for the filter proposal - Stephen Conroy - is in regards to how easy it is to bypass such measures.
But it's not all bad news. Like I said above, this isn't yet law. It's a proposal, one that's been dragging on for a few years now and has been constantly beset by issues, from findings that the filter doesn't work (some harmless sites are blocked, while targeted ones get through) to the fact it can't monitor peer-to-peer networks (so, BitTorrent) to a large body of dissent amongst Australia's internet service providers.
Because of all this, I can't personally see it becoming law, even if it has gained a lot of media attention over the past six months. It's just got too many hurdles to clear, both politically and technically.
But just in case it does, that's all you need to know about how it will affect gaming, and the coverage of games. And hey, even if it does pass into law, remember; a change in Australia's ratings guidelines would make it irrelevant, as stuff rated R18+ would no longer be "refused classification", and as such wouldn't be filtered in the first place.