Supporters want a trial period for eSafety commissioner

As tech companies line up against the Australian government's anti-bullying eSafety commissioner proposal, even supporters of the proposal have said the government shouldn't rush to legislate to remove 'harmful' content from social media.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

As technology, telecommunications, and social media companies have lined up against the Coalition government's proposed government-appointed eSafety commissioner with the power to remove content deemed "harmful" to children, supporters of the proposal to crack down on online bullying have told the government that a slower approach with a trial period would be better than hasty legislation.

Submissions to the discussion paper for the government's proposal released in January were published today from a range of stakeholders including telcos, child advocate groups, privacy and electronic rights groups, school organisations, tech companies, and social media companies.

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 submissions obtained by ZDNet earlier this month from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, and the libertarian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, already indicated strong opposition to the proposal, but even supporters of the overall notion of having a single commissioner with the power to compel sites to remove content have suggested, at most, a trial of the commissioner before legislating a new government body with such broad powers.

The Carly Ryan foundation said in its submission that the term "harmful material" was "incredibly broad and not well defined". The foundation argued that what is harmful to one child may not be harmful to another. And while supportive of the establishment of a "high profile and visible" eSafety commissioner as the one-stop shop for cyber bullying, the foundation said there should be a trial period of operation before legislation or policy is enacted.

Overall, however, the foundation said that harmful material should be able to be removed from social media sites between 12 and 48 hours after a complaint has been made. Social media sites have estimated it could take a minimum five days for the Commissioner to investigate and resolve complaints.

Another child protection group, Bravehearts, also supported the creation of a single, centralised commissioner to deal with complaints about online bullying within a 48-hour time period, and went further to suggest that instead of limiting it to content harmful to a specific child, it should be broadened to content that is likely to cause harm or distress to a child, or children generally.

In a joint submission with Google, the two organisations said that hasty legislation for the removal of content would be unworkable and inflexible, and "may create the (incorrect) expectation that the government could remove material on any website."

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation said it supported the rapid removal of content, should it be based on evidence, and it is workable from an industry perspective.

Unicef Australia supported the introduction of the commissioner with the power to remove harmful content, while the Association of Christian Schools said that it would be very difficult to create a "workable solution" to rapidly remove content deemed to be harmful across the various social media platforms, and more consultation would be needed before moving ahead with the proposal.

"ACS strongly urges the government to be mindful that Australia does not become a 'nanny state', whereby the government or its policies become overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice," the association said.

The Australian Medical Association said that it believed that many of the functions proposed for the eSafety Commissioner could be undertaken by the National Children's Commissioner within the Human Rights Commission, and said that the proposal should be progressed "with caution".

The Australian Federal Police backed the introduction of the eSafety Commissioner, and noted that while there may be challenges in getting overseas providers to cooperate with the scheme, the AFP has a good relationship with a number of domestic and international online businesses who routinely cooperate with law enforcement on a voluntary basis.

The Law Council of Australia said that the rapid removal of content proposal was "overly broad and reliant upon the commissioner's discretion".

iiNet's chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby said in the company's submission that iiNet was not convinced of the need for an eSafety commissioner, given the transnational nature of the internet making enforcing the anti-bullying provisions "near impossible".

Telstra said that the scope of the sites included in the scheme would leave out a number of smaller websites, making the scheme unworkable.

"In recent years, we have begun to see displacement and fragmentation impact on the dominance of a few major social networking sites as users, particularly younger users, move to new sites, eg: Instagram and Tumblr; anonymous social networking sites, such as ask.fm and qooh.me; smartphone messenger apps, eg: Kik; and social apps, eg: Vine and Pheed," Telstra said.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia supported the crackdown on online bullying generally, and asked the government to consider including cyber-racism as part of the proposal.

"Given the nature and impact of issues concerning cyber-racism as a subset of cyber-bullying, FECCA highlights the importance of allowing complainants the ability to self-identify with relation to their cultural, linguistic or religious background, to indicate instances where these specific factors have led to a violation of online safety," the organisation said.

"In addition to effectively highlighting trends relating to cyber-racism, FECCA believes that identifying violations of online safety on the basis of culture, religion and/or language will also assist in developing targeted strategies to prevent future instances of cyber-racism."

The submission came as this week the government is seeking public comment on its plans to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act that currently legislates against people making offensive comments about certain racial groups.

Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher previously told ZDNet he did not see a difference between the government's proposal to remove 'harmful' content and its claims around repealing parts of the Racial Discrimination Act on the grounds of free speech.

Fletcher said today that the government would now proceed with legislation on the eSafety commissioner.

"It is clear that all stakeholders share the same objective, that is, to protect children from online dangers such as cyberbullying," he said.

"I welcome the input we have received in these many thoughtful submissions, which will be carefully considered as we proceed to develop legislation."

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