If you’re a regular viewer of the ABC’s Media Watch, you’ve probably heard many references to the ACMA over the years – and that’s not at all surprising since the public role that Media Watch plays fits in with the much less visible roles handled by the ACMA.
And yes, that’s The ACMA, as the authority’s website repeatedly points out. The ACMA is the Australian Communications and Media Authority, a government-run independent body formed in 2005 by merging the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority.
Despite popping up in the media every so often in relation to broadcast TV and radio, the role the ACMA plays is actually far broader, covering pretty much all aspects of modern communication – telecommunications (including phone services), radio and TV broadcasting, two-way radio communications and, of course, the Internet.
The ACMA developed and maintains the various codes of practice and industry standards that apply to all of these realms – and as you might guess from their areas of overview, they have a massive influence on everything to do with media and communications within Australia.
Television and Radio
All the commercial and government TV and radio broadcasters are directly regulated by the ACMA, which not only issues them with their broadcasting licences in the first place but also holds the broadcasters to Codes of Practice — which say what can and can’t be broadcast. There are also broadcasting standards set by the ACMA which cover everything from the amount of Australian content seen on TV and the amount of advertising broadcast during shows, to the disclosure of commercial arrangements held by radio presenters (you’ll possibly recall the controversies surrounding “cash for comment” with some outspoken broadcasters). If a TV or radio broadcaster breaches either the Codes of Practice or the broadcasting standards, you can submit a complaint about it which must be investigated. That doesn’t guarantee that hefty punishment will be handed out, though – the ACMA is generally pretty lenient with broadcasters and the result of many complaints will likely be the broadcaster in question getting a good official scolding. But since adhering to these rules is a condition of holding a broadcasting licence in the first place, you can be sure the broadcasters take the ACMA very seriously.
One of the most visible and important jobs the ACMA does is in the area of landline and mobile phone services – though it’s nothing to do with the regulation and licensing of mobile phone networks (which of course they also do). The ACMA runs what is probably one of the most useful services of the modern communications era – the Do Not Call Register. This service lets you submit your phone numbers – both home phone and mobile if you like – to a master list of numbers that do not want to receive telemarketing calls. And it’s incredibly effective (if a little watered-down by the fact that religions, charities and political parties are exempt from having to use the list).
The ACMA is very visibly involved in the online world as well, most notably as the enforcers of the Spam Act, a comprehensive law which bans unsolicited spam email (from inside Australia only, unfortunately), as well as requiring any consensual commercial messages to provide accurate contact information and a one-click way to unsubscribe from any future emails. There are exemptions to the rules – most of them sensible, such as allowing an unsolicited email from a company notifying you that one of their products has been recalled. And just as with the Do Not Call Register, all registered charities, registered political parties and educational institutions are exempt to some extent.