Digital Life

'We're watching you': Social media sites face being named and shamed by proposed e-safety commissioner

Social media websites and apps based overseas like Facebook, Snapchat and Ask.fm can soon expect a knock on the door from an Australian government official if they don't comply with certain expectations surrounding cyber bullying and the removal of objectionable content.

The sites may also face being named and shamed if they don't meet the expectations.

Paul Fletcher says the e-safety commissioner will have "reputation sanctions".
Paul Fletcher says the e-safety commissioner will have "reputation sanctions". 

This is according to Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Communications, who has revealed what powers his yet-to-be-appointed e-safety commissioner will have.

Speaking at the Law Society of NSW last week, Mr Fletcher said legislation to be introduced before parliament later this year would enable him to appoint an e-safety commissioner that would become a central point of contact for children, parents and law-enforcement agencies.

The commissioner would also regularly fly overseas to establish informal relationships with social networks and apps in order to ensure they meet certain Australian expectations, he said.

If they didn't, Mr Fletcher said the sites risked reputationdamage in Australia.

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"As new [sites] emerge we want the person in this office to be getting on a plane, travelling to Europe and the US and other parts of the world on a regular basis, knocking on the door and saying, 'I'm from the Australian government, I just want to let you know we're watching you and we want an informal relationship if serious stuff is posted on your site [and] we want to be able to get in touch and ask you to take it down and also let you know we've got some expectations of social media sites'," Mr Fletcher said in response to a question about enforcing his policy.

He said his expectations were that the sites and apps have a complaints scheme that enables the rapid removal of objectionable content and terms of use that define cyber-bullying material.

The government also expected to be given its own central point of contact with each site, he said.

This was essential "because what we've seen is that as new sites emerge and come on the scene there can be a real disconnect" when it comes to contact.

He added that anecdotal evidence suggested it could be very difficult for a school principal or police officer to get in contact with emerging social sites or apps to remove cyber bullying content on them.

In addition to an e-safety commissioner, the federal government has proposed extra funding for education on cyber bullying. A separate proposal to create dedicated criminal offences for online bullies was dropped in April.

Companies such as Google and Facebook have objected to the plans for an e-safety commissioner on the grounds they threaten free speech, claiming industry oversight would better serve online safety.

Although he conceded cooperation wasn't enforceable, he said there would be "reputational sanctions" the e-safety commissioner could apply to sites that refused or didn't respond when asked to take down objectionable material.

"In other words it would be possible for this e-safety commissioner - indeed we envisage it being part of his or her job - to ... be a source of advice to parents and amongst other things to say [publicly], for example … 'We think this site is pretty problematic'." 

"So there will be plenty of sites, particularly those smaller [ones] located overseas where we won't have a formal capacity to enforce but we still think it's worth having someone whose job description involves attempting to build a relationship," Mr Fletcher said.

In 2010, the Australian Federal Police accused Facebook of hampering criminal investigations and putting lives at risk by withholding information from law enforcement agencies.

But Australian Federal Police coordinator of the High Tech Crime Operations Crime Prevention Team, Jenny Cartwright, told the Law Society of NSW that relationships with social networking sites had improved.

"If it's child exploitation material then the cooperation we've received has been quite positive and quite swift," Dr Cartwright said.

"There are a number of mechanisms that are in place with a number of social networking platforms where you can escalate," she added. "If you report something that hasn't been taken down then we have the ability to escalate it further so that the content is taken down.

"We also have the other ability, using mutually legal assistance requests, to have certain material [removed]. [So] we are getting that cooperation."

However, Mr Fletcher said evidence still suggested that many sites didn't always cooperate. He said a recent study indicated that in many cases take-down requests were ignored.

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