Australian government plans rapid content removal for social media

Large social networks would be required to remove content deemed to be bullying under a proposal put together by Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher.

The Coalition government is moving ahead with plans to force large social media companies to remove content deemed to be bullying, or face the consequences.

Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher this morning released a discussion paper on the establishment of the eSafety commissioner, as ZDNet foreshadowed earlier this month .

The release follows months of discussions with the industry and child welfare advocates, ZDNet understands, but the social networks remain pessimistic about the proposal , with one industry source telling ZDNet last year that they're concerned the government is at the whim of the far-right conservative group, the Australian Christian Lobby.

Fletcher's office would not confirm whether he had been meeting with the Australian Christian Lobby in regard to this matter, but said that members of child advocate groups such as Bravehearts, Child Wise, and Cybersafety Solutions had attended meetings on the proposal along with the likes of Telstra, Google, Facebook, Yahoo7, and Microsoft.

The discussion paper states that the government will appoint an independent Children's eSafety Commissioner through existing resources, which will have the power to enforce a "rapid removal" of content from large social media sites that is deemed to be harmful to children.

The commissioner could either exist as an independent statutory authority, as a non-government organisation, or be fulfilled by a member of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

When the commissioner receives a complaint from a person under the age of 18, or their parent or guardian, the commissioner would then seek to determine whether it was "targeted at and likely to cause harm to an Australian child" before directing the social media site to remove it.

Fletcher told ZDNet that freedom of expression would be protected by limiting it to this specific clause.

"Protecting children must be balanced against freedom of speech on the internet. We have struck that balance by restricting the scheme's operation to content which is targeted at and harmful to a specific Australian child," he said in a statement.

The government said in the proposal that it would expect the cooperation of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that choose to operate in Australia. Companies that fail to comply will be handed warnings, infringement notices, and ultimately injunctions and civil penalties.

Once the content is removed, an appeals process would be set up through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but the scheme would favour the interests of the child rather than the person who originally posted the content.

It comes as the Coalition government is set to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act that made it unlawful to offend and insult people because of their race.

"You cannot have a situation in a liberal democracy in which the expression of an opinion is rendered unlawful because somebody else ... finds it offensive or insulting," Attorney-General Brandis said late last year.

Fletcher said he did not see the similarities between the two policies.

A spokesperson for the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association, which includes Microsoft, Yahoo7, Facebook, Freelancer, eBay, Google, and Twitter, said that the proposal is counter-productive.

"We share the Abbott government's commitment to keeping young Australians safe online, and we invest heavily in tools and infrastructure to achieve this. However, the government's proposal to legislate a one-size-fits-all regime is counter-productive to our own work and commitment to the safety of our customers," the spokesperson said.

One source within a social media company also told ZDNet that the proposal would be ineffective, because it would fail to capture other services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, which are popular with younger users.

The policy was originally announced two days out from the 2013 federal election, along with mandatory opt-out internet filtering of all adult content. The Coalition backflipped on that policy five hours after ZDNet revealed the party's plans.

"Also, the creation of a new statutory body and new regulation on complaints handling seems at odds with the government's stated strategy to reduce regulation and to streamline government agencies."

The government is also seeking to amend the Criminal Code with specific cyberbullying offences targeted at people under 18, as well as a potential civil enforcement regime for people failing to remove and/or cease bullying children online. The penalty proposed would be an AU$1,000 fine.