AUSTRALIAN COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA AUTHORITY
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is an independent statutory authority of the Australian federal government, responsible for the regulation of broadcasting, radiocasting, telecommunications and the internet. It was established on 1 July 2005 through the merger of the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) and the Australian Communications Authority (ACA).
The ACMA’s predecessor organisations, the ABA and the ACA, were established under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, which aimed to promote greater market competition and co-regulation with industry, including the development of industry Codes of Practice. The ABA was responsible for planning and regulating broadcasting services and broadcast licensing, as well as content and community standards regulations. The ACA was responsible for regulating telecommunications and radio communications. The passing of the Broadcasting Services Act (Online Services) Amendment Act in 1999 saw the ABA also become responsible for internet content regulations.
The ACMA is a convergent media regulator. Convergent media regulators have been a worldwide trend in the 2000s. One prominent example has being the establishment of the Office of Communication (Ofcom) in the United Kingdom, under the Communications Act 2003. Ofcom brought together the regulatory functions associated with telecommunications and broadcasting under a single regulator, whose remit has required it to consider both ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ interest in the setting of UK communications policy.
Under section 51(v) of the Australian Constitution, broadcasting and telecommunications powers reside with the Commonwealth. In broadcast media, this includes powers related to spectrum allocation, allocation of broadcasting licences, and content and community standards regulations—including the Australian content standard and the children’s television standard for commercial free-to-air broadcasters.
The ACMA has understood its role as involving working with relevant industries to achieve active self-regulation, while ensuring industry compliance with licence conditions, codes and standards. In response to complaints that the ABA had insufficient powers to deal with breaches of industry codes, as with the ‘cash for comment’ scandal involving commercial radio broadcasters Alan Jones and John Laws in 1999, the enforcement powers of the ACMA were broadened to enable the application of ‘middle-range’ penalties to address those breaches not considered serious enough to warrant the imposition of criminal penalties, or suspension or cancellation of a licence. Such powers were applied to the Ten Network in 2005 in relation to episodes of the reality television program Big Brother Uncut, which contained sexual content unsuitable for its MA15+ timeslot, and again in 2006 around inappropriate online content in what was known as the ‘turkey slap’ incident, where a male housemate appeared to strike the face of a sleeping female housemate with his genitals.
Since its establishment, the ACMA has had to deal with an increasing number of consumer complaints each year. These have more typically been in relation to telecommunications than broadcasting, where the number of complaints dealt with has remained relatively static over the 2000s. The ACMA has also conducted a growing number of internet content investigations. Between 2000 and 2013, the ACMA conducted investigations into more than 26,000 items of online content, of which it found 14,000 items of prohibited or potentially prohibited content (such as depicting child sexual abuse or abhorrent phenomena); the number of online investigations grew dramatically over the 2000s.
The ACMA conducts extensive community and industry research. It monitors the effect of broadcasting regulations to ensure they are responsive to the community’s needs, as well as conducting ongoing research into community attitudes to media and changing patterns of media use. An example of such research is Digital Australians: Expectations About Media Content in a Converging Media Environment (2011), a study into how Australians are using media and their expectations about its regulation.
In 2012, the ACMA was part of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE). In the context of the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) to provide high-speed broadband internet access to all Australian homes, the DBCDE had responsibility for the Convergence Review. The Convergence Review was tasked with reviewing Australia’s policy framework for the production and delivery of media content and communications services, and their suitability in the context of a communications landscape increasingly experiencing convergence. It was undertaken alongside related reviews such as the National Classification Scheme Review (2011–12), undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission, and the Independent Media Inquiry (the Finkelstein Inquiry, 2011–12), looking into regulation of newspapers and online news media services.
The ACMA took a very active role in advising the Convergence Review, particularly in relation to the limitations of current Australian media and communications regulations in a convergent media environment. In particular, the ACMA (2011) identified 55 ‘broken concepts’ in the broadcasting, telecommunications and radio communications legislation that it administered, including ‘influence’ in broadcasting; the ‘Australian identity’ of media owners; the concept of a ‘program’ in broadcasting; the distinction between a ‘content service provider’ and a ‘carriage service provider’ in relation to the internet; and regulations specifically applied to activities such as telemarketing and interactive gambling.
It argued that such concepts were becoming unsustainable in a context where there was no longer a clear relationship between media content and delivery platforms—that is, specific vertically integrated industries such as television, radio, telephony and the internet. It argued that regulation premised on the notion that content can be controlled on the basis of how it is delivered was losing its effectiveness when ‘technological change in the form of digital transmission systems means that service delivery is now independent of network technologies’.
As with similar regulatory bodies worldwide, the ACMA is challenged with the task of adapting to this converged media environment.
REFs: ACMA, Broken Concepts (2011); Convergence Review Committee, Convergence Review: Final Report (2012); T. Flew, The Convergent Media Policy Moment (2012).