Social networks blind sided by new Australian govt's e-safety tsar

Some of the world's largest social networks are concerned about the incoming Coalition government's plans for a Children's e-Safety Commissioner that allegedly went ahead without industry consultation.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The headline policy proposal from the Coalition's Enhance Online Safety for Children policy for a new Children's e-Safety Commissioner with the power to force social networks to remove content came as a surprise to some of the world's largest social networks.

The idea for the commissioner was first floated in November 2012, when the Coalition's Online Safety Working group, chaired by Liberal MP Paul Fletcher, released a discussion paper outlining proposals for ways to tackle online safety for children.

The policy document called for industry response to proposals about establishing the commissioner role to be the one-stop shop for complaints about bullying on social media, handling education campaigns on the role that social networks play in online bullying, and ultimately removing content that is deemed to be harmful to children.

Under the co-regulatory proposal, social media sites would be required to establish a process to accept complaints about content online that is likely to harm children, and a process for having that content rapidly removed.

According to the original policy document, the Coalition said it "would not impose such a scheme without consultation with industry".

So when the final policy document was released two days out from the election last week, social networks were shocked to learn that the party had said that this complaints system would be in place, backed by legislation to force the large social media sites to participate in the complaints system, with the Children's e-Safety Commissioner able to compel social media sites to remove the material if it is considered likely to cause harm to a child.

Twitter, Google, and Facebook all declined to comment on the policy publicly, but a source within one large social networking company told ZDNet that the final policy came as a surprise.

"We were surprised the Coalition tried to sneak in the creation of a new level of bureaucracy two days before an election, given it's been radio silence since they first floated the idea last year," the source said.

"They've gone for the most extreme of a whole raft of options explored, and the overwhelming feedback was that it was heavy handed and raises serious questions about censorship and the regulation of content online."

In a submission to the original discussion paper, obtained by ZDNet, the Australia digital industry association AIMIA — which includes members such as Facebook, Google, eBay, and Yahoo7 — said it is unclear why there needs to be a specific government agency created to address online bullying, especially when most of the content is hosted overseas.

"The discussion paper talks of a commissioner being empowered to order the removal of content. However, as the discussion paper also notes, many online service providers are global and host content overseas. Consequently, where content violates global policies, it will be removed; but where it only violates the local law, it may be IP blocked so that it is no longer available in Australia," the paper stated.

"Any regulatory scheme proposed by the Coalition will need to take account of this distinction."

A spokesperson for Fletcher denied that the industry had not been consulted about the commissioner, and said that the Coalition will be moving ahead with the policy now that the party has won the election.

"The policy in relation to the Children's E-Safety Commissioner was contained in the Coalition Discussion Paper on Enhancing Online Safety for Children issued in November 2012, and was the subject of industry consultation subsequently," the spokesperson said.

"It forms part of the Coalition's Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children issued during the 2013 election campaign, and, as with all Coalition policies, the Coalition will be proceeding to implement the policy."

One policy the new government won't be proceeding to implement is the Coalition's opt-out-only internet filter blocking "adult content", which was abandoned less than five hours after it was first revealed by ZDNet.

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