news The Australian divisions of the world’s largest social networking companies have criticised the new Coalition administration’s approach to dealing with the issue of children’s safety on the Internet as “counterproductive”, in a move which signals the start of opposition to ongoing attempts by successive Australian Governments to regulate the Internet.
Yesterday the Federal Government issued a detailed discussion paper canvassing various options through which it could deal with the issue of children’s safety on the Internet, including the potential establishment of a children’s e-safety commissioner, developing an effective complaints system to deal with offensive material on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and even the potential establishment of a new cyber-bullying offence.
The issue has come to prominence in Australia over the past several years, with a number of cases of offensive behaviour taking place through social networks causing community outcry. For example, in February 2010 then-Queensland Premier Anna Bligh personally wrote to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, appealing to the social networking supremo for help in blocking offensive material from being posted on memorial sites for Queensland girl Trinity Bates.
In a statement issued this morning, Liberal MP Paul Fletcher — Parliamentary Secretary to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull — said that the Internet provided “immense benefits” — to children as much as to adults. “But it can also bring dangers,” he added.
“It is clear that parents, and others caring for children, want more help – and better tools – to keep the children in their care as safe as possible when they use the Internet. The Children’s E-Safety Commissioner will be a single point of contact in the federal government for online safety issues for children.”
However, the Government’s move met with immediate opposition from a clutch of companies with interests in the area. A joint comment on the issue was issued by the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association and its Digital Policy Group, Microsoft, Yahoo!7, Facebook, Freelancer, eBay, Google and Twitter on the matter.
The group said: “We share the Abbott Government’s commitment to keeping young Australians safe online and we invest heavily in tools and infrastructure to achieve this. However, the Government’s proposal to legislate a one-size fits all regime is counterproductive to our own work and commitment to the safety of the people who use our services. Also the creation of a new statutory body and new regulation on complaints handling seems at odds with the Government’s stated strategy to reduce regulation and to streamline Government agencies.”
The companies mentioned all have specific tools dedicated to keeping children safe online already, with options including Yahoo!7 Safe Search, Facebook’s specific protections for minors, YouTube Safe Search and Bing Safe Search. Internationally, most countries have not seen it as necessary to go beyond supporting these kinds of tools, or promoting PC-based filtering software, in order to protect children online.
In addition, there is currently no evidence of there being a problem with how online content is reviewed and removed by online platforms. Several large industry players entered in to a voluntary protocol with the Australian government in January 2013. There has been no publicly available evidence presented so far to suggest that this protocol is not working.
The group is not the only critic of the Government’s new social media policy.
The incoming human rights commissioner tasked with looking at issues of freedom, Tim Wilson, this week reportedly told ZDNet that there were “serious risks” with the government appointing a watchdog with the power to force social networking sites to remove content that was deemed to be “harmful” to children.
My view on this issue is clear. As I wrote yesterday:
“In my opinion, there is no real need to create a children’s e-safety commissioner to deal with this issue; there is no real need for the Government to work with social networking sites to have offensive material removed, and there is no real need for a new cyber-bullying offence to be created.
I feel that the Government’s approach in this area neglects to take into account the fundamental nature of technology and the Internet as an ungovernable force. If a parent forces Facebook to take down offensive material about their child posted by bullies at their school, for example, there is nothing to stop those bullies posting that same material on a different site — even their own site, hosted in another jurisdiction such as Russia.
The Federal Government can create as many new laws and children’s e-safety commissioners as it wants — but it cannot escape this fundamental truth. Neither can it escape the fact that existing laws, in areas such as defamation, for example, are already capable of handling the dissemination by Australians of offensive material online.
Sites such as Twitter and Facebook have long had mechanisms for flagging offensive content online and having it deleted. The mechanisms don’t work perfectly, and sometimes they don’t work at all. But it is in the implementation of these technical mechanisms by these sites at the demand of their own users — not by Governments — that much of the solution to these problems can be found.
Much of the rest of the solution relies on ordinary Australians understanding that the Internet is not print media. It is not television. It is not radio. It was not designed to be controlled and governed like these mediums, and it has resisted every attempt to be controlled thus far. I feel that as a culture, we had better toughen up and get used to this fact. Because jurisdictions all around the world have consistently found it ineffective to try and regulate the Internet in the way that the Government is proposing today in its e-safety discussion paper.
I don’t say that the Government’s motivations here are not laudable. They are. Protecting children is always laudable. However, what I am saying is that its actions in attempting to meet those aims will not be effective. And that raises the question of why it’s trying in the first place. My suspicion is that, as is usually the case when Governments try to regulate the Internet, that these actions are being taken on the basis of the concerns of a small number of dedicated interest groups in this area: Interest groups which have consistently shown little interest in the practicalities of implementing control over the Internet. Ideals are nice … but when it comes to the Internet, reality has always triumphed.”