Government pressured to drop social media censorship plans

The Australian government is facing pressure from tech giants Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as telecommunications companies and libertarian groups to drop plans for a cybersafety tsar with the power to remove 'harmful' content from social media.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Technology powerhouses including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Twitter, have joined forces to convince the Australian government that plans for an 'eSafety Commissioner' empowered to rapidly remove content deemed 'harmful' to children from social media will likely be ineffective and would be hard to implement.

The rejection of the government's proposal came in a number of submissions to Parliamentary Secretary Paul Fletcher's discussion paper outlining the Children's eSafety Commissioner plans.

The discussion paper stated that the government plans to appoint an independent Children's eSafety Commissioner that will have the power to force large social media sites to "rapidly remove" content deemed to be "targeted at and likely to cause harm to an Australian child."

In a submission from the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) — which includes companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft, and eBay — obtained by ZDNet, the group said that by appointing a chief bureaucrat to decide what can and can't be removed from social media, it would likely slow down the processes social media sites already have in place for removing harmful content, and could take up to five days to see content removed.

It could also see children move to other platforms that are not subject to the same rules, the association said.

In a separate submission on its own, Facebook said that it might even take weeks for content to be removed through the eSafety Commissioner process.

"The scheme contains multiple steps that would seemingly take at least several days, if not a week, to progress through before the Commissioner issues a content removal order."

Facebook also warned that legislating to require removal of content deemed harmful to children could be misused.

"The proposed test is 'material targeted at, and likely to, cause harm to an Australian child' could apply to many types of content that young people share online, tagging their friends, which their parents and the eSafety Commissioner do not consider is appropriate," a Facebook spokesperson said.

"It could potentially, for example, apply to a video game walk-through of Grand Theft Auto that one person posts and then tags their friend in, or it could apply to photos of planking that are shared, tagging friends.

"Rather than enhance the online safety of young people, the scheme has potential to legislate intergenerational conflict rather than encouraging conversations between parents and young people."

The conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), also warned of the potential for the eSafety Commissioner's role to be misused.

"The Children's e-Safety Commissioner is bound to suffer mission creep as it is seen by governments and the public as a one-stop-shop for social media censorship," the IPA said.

"Rather than focusing on the elimination of the harmful conduct — that is, sustained harassment — the proposal simply censors individual acts of expression. The proposal is at the same time a blunt instrument — censorship is an extreme power for the government to wield — and unlikely to make a material difference to bullying. Faced against a genuine act of bullying sustained over time a specific take-down power such as the one outlined in the discussion paper would be entirely ineffective."

The lobby group said that what constitutes "harmful material" is highly ambiguous, and said that cyberbullying was no different from traditional bullying, and should be dealt with in the same way.

"Cyberbullying is a neologism that confuses more than it clarifies. Parliament needs to understand that there is, in fact, no such thing as 'cyberbullying'. It does not describe a discrete and specific form of conduct. There is just bullying, on and offline."

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and the Communications Alliance said in a joint submission that the discussion paper provided no quantitative evidence that existing content-removal processes had failed.

The associations also revealed that they have been in discussion with the government for the introduction of smartphones and other devices with "default content management tools, over and above the parental control tools already available in the marketplace" but noted that there were practical challenges associated with it.

AIMIA also pointed to the agreement signed between Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and the Australian government in 2012 that required the social networking sites to have a contact person that the government can approach with issues with content online. The association said that no contact had ever been made since it was implemented.

The IPA said that the eSafety commissioner proposal comes in stark contrast to the government's pledges to protect freedom of expression, and moves to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act. In response to that claim, Fletcher told the ABC's Law Report last month that the proposal was very targeted.

"The very clear application of this measure would be to the protection of children. So it's quite specific to children. And secondly, as I say, it's quite carefully targeted to cyber bullying," he said.

"The fundamental commitment to this measure to improve the safety of children using the internet is something that we took to the election as a policy and we intend to proceed with."

The proposal has also been criticised by the new Australian Human Rights Commissioner charged with looking at issues of freedom, Tim Wilson.

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