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

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

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

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.

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.

"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.

28 comments so far

  • I love this bit:

    "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..."

    Now, the Internet behemoths Google and Facebook have already said that they are not going to entertain the commissioner, so what exactly is the point of flying all the way to the United States to reach a closed door? There is no conversation to be had if they refuse to cooperate, because there is no jurisdiction for Australian law in the US.

    Regularly flying overseas at the expense of the Australian taxpayer - that's a nice gig for someone...!

    Wouldn't it be cheaper to just pick up the phone and talk to someone in the US? Or even use Facetime, Skype or some similar video app?

    It looks like this government is prepared to spend plenty of money just appearing to act, but without any expectation of success.

    And the proposed penalty is pretty funny too - name and shame!

    Are the Australian public really going to trust this government when it tells us which Internet companies can be trusted?

    I don't think this government understands that it has already lost the trust of the Australian people, and we have stopped listening to them already.

    Commenter
    FordPrefect
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 11, 2014, 4:28PM
    • You have nailed your reply perfectly. This is a government in the terminal stages. Just like the previous government. Disliked, non-connected, not listening, living in loo-loo land. So the best reply is to get them"flying kites", "flying ideas with the electorate", and "flying" overseas on junkets - sound like the previous government.
      The only difference is this government is still less than a year into its 3 year term - and already it is in terminal decline.
      Once they start talking about "Team Straylia", you know they are out of ideas.

      Commenter
      Oh Yeah
      Date and time
      August 11, 2014, 10:47PM
    • And if you weren't all sheep signing up to Facebook etc and not thinking about the big picture we wouldn't be having this conversation! It is not the way of the world - it's just that no one has questioned it and as we are seeing now, social media has way bigger disadvantages in terms of keeping those who wish us bad connected, bullying, pedophiles etc than the trivialities of keeping in touch with such a mechanism. When are the majority gonna start using their brains and seeing it for what it is - notwithstanding the manipulation of advertising as well.

      Commenter
      Leah
      Date and time
      August 11, 2014, 10:53PM
    • "It looks like this government is prepared to spend plenty of money just appearing to act, but without any expectation of success." this is all you needed to say......i work for a gov department.....enough said

      Commenter
      skeptic
      Location
      perth
      Date and time
      August 12, 2014, 7:42AM
  • "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..."

    On paper it sounds like a nice rort for a public servant who wants to do some traveling. Until you realize just how many web sites there are out there on this newfangled interweb thingy.

    Another moronic proposal from an incompetent government.

    Commenter
    The Doc
    Date and time
    August 11, 2014, 4:55PM
    • Think they will find 20 billion and rising websites hard to police.

      Commenter
      wdawes
      Date and time
      August 12, 2014, 10:33AM
  • Sounds like more Big Brother to me. Fascism and totalitarianism definitely on the menu.

    Commenter
    Eric Blair
    Date and time
    August 11, 2014, 5:24PM
    • Right so signing up to Facebook etc isn't Big Brother? Give me a break!

      Commenter
      Leah
      Date and time
      August 11, 2014, 10:56PM
    • ' if they don't comply with certain expectations surrounding cyber bullying and the removal of objectionable content.'
      The cyber bullying aspect is simply a red herring. It is the removal of objectionable content that the LNP is on about. Sophie Mirabella was given the flick, and Cathy McGowan was elected in Indi due to the good work of the kids on social media. We cannot allow our democracy to be influenced by the undeserving in our community.

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      August 12, 2014, 6:06AM
    • There is nothing original in this. It is straight from George Orwell.

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      August 12, 2014, 6:15AM

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