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Apple TV content at risk if streaming bill goes forward

Apple is the latest tech firm to warn that Kiwis may lose access to streaming content if a new parental guidance law goes ahead, Marc Daalder reports

Apple has joined the chorus of big tech companies threatening to cut New Zealanders off from streaming content if a new law goes ahead.

Newsroom reported on Wednesday that a law attempting to standardise parental guidance warnings across streaming services like Netflix and Lightbox has raised hackles from some Silicon Valley firms, which have threatened to block Kiwis from accessing their content.

The bill mandates that certain commercial video-on-demand (CVoD) providers follow the process that broadcasting and film companies follow in classifying content or submit themselves to a self-classification system to be developed by the Chief Censor and the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC).

Even this latter proposal would require reclassifying vast back catalogues of content, some CVoD providers say, and it might be easier for them to pull some content out of New Zealand altogether.

Apple and Microsoft team up

In its submission to the Governance and Administration select committee, Microsoft warned that content it has yet to classify could be geo-blocked. "Microsoft observes, however, that while the majority of content it makes available through the Microsoft Movies & TV platform is or may be rated by the studio producing the content, where a small independent studio or filmmaker makes content available on the platform, that content may not have a rating assigned," the company's government affairs manager Maciej Surowiec writes.

"In that situation, a provider like Microsoft is unlikely to apply to rate the content itself (or itself develop a rating system) as it isn’t in the business of reviewing the film’s content in order to apply for the correct label. In the result, unobjectionable yet unrated / unlabelled content may, in some cases, not be made available to New Zealand audiences, due to the regulatory threshold associated with rating and labelling."

Now, Apple has joined its rival in threatening to lock Kiwis off from Apple TV content. "It is likely that any platform impacted by the Bill will need to collect and manage any information not already associated with the content and undertake engineering works to ensure a smooth transition," Apple's government affairs manager Heather Grell wrote.

"This includes any engineering works associated with parental controls properly integrating with a particular classification system. Please note that this may also result in a loss of currently available content, if it will not be economically viable to make this investment for all content"

Grell also called for the deadline for the new classification system to be pushed back by at least a year, or new content would be delayed.

"Although the insertion of New Zealand specific pictograms and descriptors may seem a straightforward process, given the large volume of content and technicalities associated with overlaying specific pictograms and information on a country specific basis, there is likely to be a significant time delay in any such implementation."

Government reassures those concerned

The Government says there is no reason for worry. Minister of Internal Affairs Tracey Martin wrote in a March 2019 cabinet paper that she had "been advised that the Deputy Chief Censor’s opinion is that [self-classification options] are unlikely to result in any delay in new content coming to the New Zealand market".

"The Deputy Chief Censor also did not think that providers would skip the New Zealand market because of the proposed changes."

The OFLC, in its select committee submission, said that "given that this framework is low cost and simple for providers to implement, this would be unlikely to impact services provided to NZ public. We have not seen providers withdraw from other jurisdictions due to regulation. This light-handed regulatory approach will not require providers to make significant investment to supply our relatively small market."

This avenue of concern was anticipated, as it had been raised in earlier rounds of debate.

In a submission on an earlier proposal, which included the possibility of mandatory classification without a self-classification option, the Screen Association wrote, "Complying with a formal classification process demands time and resources that may prevent operators from meeting the demands of the CVoD marketplace".

A 2018 Department of Internal Affairs briefing raised the same concerns. "Some [streaming] providers have signed up to the voluntary scheme, but several major [CVoD] providers (like Apple iTunes and Amazon Prime) have chosen not to be members. This highlights an issue with the scheme as subsequent new entrants to the [CVoD] market may opt not to participate or current participants may decide to leave in order to reduce their compliance obligations."

When the legislation was introduced to Parliament, National MPs also aired concerns about geo-blocking. Melissa Lee told the House that "the other concern is that if the regulation is too much, sometimes, I think, we run the risk of having content providers geo-block New Zealand".

ACT Party leader David Seymour told Parliament that geo-blocking would occur. "One of the unintended consequences is that some outfits that currently stream to New Zealand will either stop servicing the New Zealand market or be blocked," he said.

However, the Government says that the need for classification justifies the concern. The OFLC's submission contains the below table illustrating the wide range of classifications for controversial content.

The submission says it is a problem when "a movie appears on different platforms with completely different classifications and warnings. This creates confusion for NZ consumers seeking reliable information when making viewing choices for themselves – or for young people in their care."

Under the new system, streaming services would either have to subject their catalogues to the classification process that mainstream films go through or self-classify based on a new scale the OFLC will develop for streamed content. This would particularly address concerns that suicide, sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence are not adequately prefaced with warnings, the OFLC says.

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