Social networks face fines for failing to remove bullying content

Legislation introduced into the Australian Parliament today could see social networks face AU$17,000 daily fines for failing to remove content deemed to be bullying towards an Australian child by the eSafety commissioner.

Social networks that fail to remove content that the Australian government's new cybersafety tsar deems to be bullying of an Australian child will face fines of AU$17,000 per day for not complying under legislation introduced into parliament on Wednesday.

The Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, introduced into the House of Representatives by Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher, sets up the new eSafety Commissioner role within the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The commissioner is designed to be a one-stop-shop for Australian children, or their guardians, to lodge complaints about bullying content online. The commissioner will be empowered to investigate and seek to have the content removed if it is deemed to be bullying to a specific Australian child.

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The scheme will be broken up into two tiers, with the first tier having a voluntary rapid content removal process for large social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, that already have content removal schemes in place as declared by the commissioner.

If the tier 1 social network fails to comply with requests over a 12-month period, then the commissioner may revoke its status down to tier 2.

Tier 2 social networks that fail to comply with legally binding notices to remove content face civil penalties of AU$17,000 per day.

The person who posted the content themselves will also receive a notice and be required to remove the content, apologise, and refrain from posting bullying content in future. An injunction can also be sought through the Federal Circuit Court.

Fletcher said today that the government had avoided imposing financial penalties on end users, because in many cases it is often children who are posting bullying material online about other children.

The legislation was originally proposed in the Coalition's 2013 election campaign. One component for that policy, the opt-out internet filter, was dropped just five hours after it was announced by the then-Opposition, and was not included in the legislation introduced on Wednesday.

The establishment of the eSafety commissioner had also been criticised in the past from the larger social networks, who had complained that it would put an unnecessary regulatory burden on them when they already have appropriate content removal schemes in place. Fletcher told ABC Radio on Wednesday morning that he had listened to their concerns.

"Oh look, we've had vigorous and continuing engagement with certainly Microsoft, Yahoo7, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other players," he said.

"I do want to acknowledge here that the large social media services have significantly increased the amount of resources they allocate to dealing with complaints of cyberbullying and other such content. We are conscious of not imposing any more additional regulatory burden than is necessary to keep Australian children safe online."

A spokesperson for the parliamentary secretary told ZDNet that the legislation was 'light-touch' regulation.

"The design of the rapid removal scheme minimises the impact on industry by utilising social media sites' existing complaints handling processes and online safety initiatives.The two-tier scheme has been developed to minimise the burden on, and regulatory exposure of, social media services that cooperate with the Children's e-Safety Commissioner."

The regulatory impact statement for the legislation estimates that the average annual cost to Australian businesses will be AU$432,000.

The legislation will be debated in the House when parliament returns in 2015, and once it reaches the senate, will likely go to the Environment and Communications Committee for scrutiny.