New problem, new rule.
When an issue of broad interest draws concern from the public, it usually does not take much before a lawmaker tries to address the problem with some new regulation.
The booming increase of time people worldwide spend on the Internet has induced experts, academics and health specialist to research whether we are heading towards a sort of ‘online addiction’ and what is to be considered as excessive and which negative impact such excess is likely to determine.
From game to disease.
In the context of this discussion, the potential negative impact of an excessive online presence on children has transformed into a focus of the debate, especially after the WHO – in May 2019 – decided to insert ‘gaming disorder’ into the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11).
New problems almost automatically end up in new restrictions/regulations.
No wonder that lawmakers increasingly felt that they had to get involved and had to come up with a proposal for new regulations, capable to properly govern the problem.
Industry and Business sectors usually realize early on when worrying clouds appear on the horizon. In 2019, the Italian gaming industry registered an annual turnover of 1,7 billion Euro. According to recent statistic research, 10,1 million gamers are active on mobile devices, 7,6 million on computers and 6 million on consoles.
The gaming industry’s preventive move.
Given these figures, the gaming industry did not feel comfortable with leaving the problem of ‘gaming addiction’ in the (more or less competent) hands of the lawmakers. Hence, they adopted an industry self-regulation code, based on the Pan European Gaming Information (PEGI) system and which all relevant stakeholders adhere to through a contractual agreement. This system was developed by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE), an organization representing the videogame industry in Europe. As per now, it is voluntarily used in 39 countries.
The Code applies to all forms of interactive software (inclusive online video games) and provides rules and guidelines for the promotion and marketing of such products and for offering reliable information to the public and, specifically – through a harmonized labeling system – about the minimum age requirement a gamer should possess, when using a certain game. The Code also offers a complaint system, which may be accessed in case of infringement of the Code’s provisions. Both, the content rating and the logo/label licensing system as well as the enforcement of the Code are granted by an independent Administrator/Body (the NICAM, as to the first aspect, the Complaints Body as to the second one).
The product’s labeling must consider the following age classes: 3, 7, 12, 16, 18. The proposed classification is reviewed by an independent administrator and must be approved before the use of the PEGI label is licensed.
Whoever manages online gaming platforms is held to perform every reasonable effort to prevent the presence on the platform of illegal, offensive, racist, degrading, obscene or threatening content or of content suitable to result harmful to children’s development. In addition, the Code calls for suitable measures to prevent minors from accessing online sections featuring chatrooms or videos with inappropriate content.
All marketing material (irrespective of the media used for its diffusion) meant to promote the products must comply with the statute law or regulatory provisions in force to regulate advertising targeted to the age class approved for the specific product. Hence, all general rules on misleading, offensive and illegal advertising will apply. Interestingly, the code also requires that all auxiliary or separate items sold in association with the PEGI labeled product present only content suitable for the age class featured on the label.
Sponsoring and product placement must also be properly revealed.
As to sanctions for infringement the Code provides – aside from exclusion from the PEGI system – for sanctions from a minimum of Euro 100.000 up to Euro 500.000 (in case of repeated violations). For minor infractions the sanctions vary between Euro 5.000 and Euro 10.000.
The legal reference.
Restrictions (almost identical to those set in the PEGI Code) for content as well as for commercial communication diffused through audiovisual media services and are to be found in EU’s Directive no. 2010/13 of March 10th, 2010 (see articles 6 and 9), commonly known as the “Audiovisual Media Services Directive”. Such Directive has been recently amended by Directive 2018/1808 of 14 November 2018, which must be implemented by the EU Member States no later than by September 19th, 2020 and which confirms (see articles 6, 6a and 9) the earlier provisions governing content in general, minors’ access to potentially harmful content and commercial communication.
However, the two Directives above do not address – expressly and specifically – video games, which induced experts and scholars to debate whether the matter was caught or not by the Directives’ provisions.
The Italian approach.
In 2016 the Parliament delegated the Government to prepare adjourned rules, suitable to increase minors’ protection in the film and audiovisual sector. To the purpose the Government was instructed to reserve a particular focus to the preparation of a harmonized content classification system for films and audiovisual products, inclusive videogames.
In 2018 the Government decided to further transfer the task of preparing a detailed regulation to the Communication Commissioner (Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni–“AGCOM”), indicating that the new provisions should:
- make the relevant industry sector more accountable as to introducing a harmonized content classification system, apt to combine freedom of artistic expression and protection of minors,
- provide for an organism competent to control and enforce – at a central level – such classification system,
- regulate the procedure for ascertaining violations of the classification system,
- introduce appropriate sanctions for infringements.
The Regulatory Authority (AGCOM) fulfilled the mandate by adopting Resolution no. 74/19/CONS, concerning the “Regulation on the rating of audiovisual works intended for the web and videogames”, which entered into force in April 2019. The new Regulation was further implemented by a set of Guidelines, adopted through Resolution no. 359/19/CONS of 18 July 2019.
These new provisions introduce – with clear reference to the PEGI standards – a rating system for audiovisual works and videogames based on age classes (suitable for all, suitable for minors aged from 4 to 6, over 7, over 12, over 16 and adults over 18 years), to be made easily perceivable through pictograms and labels. It also provides for ‘content descriptors’, meant to flag the presence of sensitive content, such as: bad language, discrimination, hate speech, reference to or use of drugs, scary situations, gambling encouragement, nudity, sexual innuendo or representation of sexual behavior, scenes of violence.
In addition, the Regulation and the Guidelines set that:
- audiovisual works and videogames may not be made available on digital or electronic communication networks in absence of their classification according to the rating system mentioned above,
- all service providers making audiovisual works and videogames available to the general public are held to grant their compliance with the rating system.
- age rating labels and the content descriptors are to be displayed both, on physical products as well as on digital ones.
- such indications must also be present in all promotional material advertising videogames,
- if videogames are offered for sale and are distributed online, the age rating and the content descriptors must be displayed on the product pages and on any other web page or online platform allowing the videogame’s purchase or its download or the access to it.
The July 2019 Guidelines offer further practical guidance and detailed indications on how to achieve proper compliance with the Regulation. They also favor both, a general as well as an individual increase of ‘digital consciousness’ and support specific informative or educational initiative (such as the campaign “Be aware be digital”).
If infringement of the Regulation’s provisions is ascertained, administrative sanctions will be served by AGCOM: fines from a minimum of Euro 25.000 up to a maximum of Euro 350.000. In addition, the Authority may suspend the infringer from any previously granted license or authorization.
Foreign producers or distributors of videogames intending to target the Italian market will need to take into proper considerations the provisions of this new Regulation. The use of other, similar age rating systems and content descriptors will not exempt them from compliance with the 2019 Italian Videogames Regulation.
While the new provisions aiming at increased protection of minors entertaining themselves through interactive games deserve full support, it is – in my personal view – somehow a pity that no one ever seems to think of a rule obliging parents to spend more quality time with their children. Maybe we should consider this – on a voluntary basis – as a more effective solution to prevent our kids from an excessive online presence.