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Internet giants oppose government plans for more cyber bullying laws and regulations

Screen Shot 2014-03-08 at 11.56.41 AMThe digital industry’s biggest players have urged the government to revise a plan to introduce an internet watchdog, an eSafety commissioner, and create new laws against cyber bullying, arguing there are “serious practical concerns” about unnecessary bureaucracy created by the scheme.

The Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) has submitted a discussion paper, on behalf of Google, Facebook, Yahoo!7, Ebay, Microsoft and Twitter which calls on the government to reconsider the proposals arguing they have serious practical ramifications, including slowing down the time it takes to remove inappropriate content, and encouraging young people onto other social media platforms with less stringent rules against cyber bullying.

“What we are all trying trying to do is keep kids safe online,” said David Holmes, CEO of AIMIA. “The government should be applauded for their intent but we have been here before.

“Our view is a commissioner is fine. If that’s another person looking at the issue that’s ok, but having that person be the gatekeeper is a really bad idea.

“Governments really struggle with the real world let alone the real time turn arounds that are required to pull down content that is hurting our kids. Our view is that the big social networks are doing a pretty good job of pulling down content when asked – and when asked not by governments but by individuals. What we would like to see is education for the kids, parents and teachers.

“The issue is people aren’t using the tools, so adding a whole pile of new tools just adds what we have counted to be eight additional layers to get something pulled down.”

In January, parliamentary secretary for communications Paul Fletcher released a public consultation about the proposed changes which would see the eSafety commissioner given the power to decide what is harmful web content and tell social media sites to pull it down.

The AIMIA submission urges the government to reconsider these proposals, arguing there are:

“Serious practical concerns with the proposed policy: a rapid take down scheme will at best take five days (much longer than industry’s own processes), the possibility that the policy will push children to undertake risky behaviour onto platforms with less highly developed self-regulatory standards and significant likelihood that the laws will be unable to keep pace with technological change.”

The discussion paper also cites numerous other smaller social platforms such as Snapchat, Ask.fm, Chance, Chatroullette and Spring.me where young people could migrate to, and move which do not have offices in Australia so would be hard to govern with the proposed laws.

It also argues against new laws on cyber bullying and note the various acts which cover the area including tort law, the various state crime acts, and stalking criminal codes.

The industry body has also been joined by a number of the digital giants who have also made their own submissions in an effort to head off changes which the industry sees as impractical or detrimental to combating online bullying.

“We do want to promote online safety, we have genuine concerns that these proposals will not promote the safety and well-being of young Australians,” said a spokeswoman for Facebook. “They will only apply to the big players, the very ones who already agreed to the co-operative arrangement, and not newer services like Snapchat and Ask.fm etc.

“Also, industry works 24/7 around the clock and around the globe to respond to complaints about content on its service, this is faster than a government agency is likely to be able to respond, and certainly the steps outlined in the Discussion Paper suggest that the government’s content removal scheme will be anything but rapid.”

Facebook’s submission to the government welcomes the idea an eSafety Commissioner as a “one-stop shop” at the federal level for online safety but later notes that by focusing on eSafety rather than the overall safety and well-being of young Australians the commissioner: “May be limited in their ability to fully respond to the issues faced by young people.”

The largest social media platform also questions the statutory test for removing content under the Government scheme arguing: “The proposed scheme is broader than bullying and harassing content and could potentially see the legislative scheme misused. The proposed test of ‘material targeted at and likely to cause harm to an Australian child’ could apply to many types of content that young people share online, tagging their friends, which their parents and the eSafety Commissioner do not consider is appropriate.”

Examples cited in the Facebook submission include the video game Grand Theft Auto, but could equally be applied to recent social media phenomenon such as ‘planking’.

Online behemoth Google, which runs platforms such as YouTube and Google+, has not released their submission to the government but it is understood the paper argues there is no need for new cyber bullying offences and that the policy is at odds with the government’s deregulation agenda.

The industry body instead urges the Government to come together with the wider industry in a national, cross-platform, education and awareness campaign to raise awareness of laws and cyber bullying.

Submissions to the public consultation closed yesterday.

Nic Christensen

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