Facebook slams Coalition plan to remove 'harmful' content

Child online safety proposal raises red flags for Internet industry and police

Police, Internet companies and others have resisted a mechanism proposed by the Australian government to remove social media content deemed harmful to children.

The government had proposed establishing a complaints system for taking down the material as a “rapid” way to remove inappropriate content. But several stakeholders have responded in submissions that the scheme would be hard to administer and might not be effective.

Facebook and others in the Internet industry said their existing policies already ban harassing and bullying.

“Legislation and regulation are an inflexible and imprecise solution to an issue that can change rapidly as technology and human behaviour do,” Facebook said in its submission to a government inquiry.

Facebook also complained that the proposed scheme would likely not apply to smaller services like Snapchat, Ask.fm and Whisper even though cyber bullying happens on those platforms, too.

The social media behemoth also protested the subjectiveness of a scheme which as stated would remove “material targeted at and likely to cause harm to an Australian child.” That could be misused to take down content that parents might not like but is not in fact inappropriate, it said.

“Rather than enhance the online safety of young people, the scheme has potential to legislate intergenerational conflict rather than encouraging conversations between parents and young people,” Facebook's submission stated.

Google voiced similar concerns. “There is no evidence provided to suggest that a formal legislative process would work better than cooperative industry processes,” Google's submission said.

“The proposed scheme would not capture many social media sites, including many popular messaging app services commonly used by teenagers. Public expectations regarding the ability of a legislated removals scheme to address cyber bullying are likely to greatly exceed the reality of what such a scheme is capable of achieving.”

Google added the proposal gives no “due process … for those who wish to challenge a complaint.”

Microsoft also blasted the proposal: “We do not believe a Government-mandated process will result in the quicker or more efficient removal of ‘harmful’ content than those processes already put in place by responsible providers.”

On the law enforcement side, the Australian Federal Police said there could be challenges using the proposed content removal mechanism for content hosted in another country.

“The AFP notes that these enforcement challenges would also occur should a civil penalty and infringement notice scheme be introduced,” its submission said.

“In this regard, the AFP recognises the very good relationship it has with domestic and international industry partners who operate in the online environment. The AFP relies on the voluntary cooperation of international companies in support of law enforcement operations.”

Representing telecom consumers, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) CEO Teresa Corbin cautioned, “Social media is a rapidly evolving landscape with a steady stream of new market entrants, often based overseas.

“Effective regulation in this sphere is made difficult as an organisation set up for this purpose would have to negotiate jurisdictional issues and a market in flux. While technical methods may be available, such as internet service provider (ISP) based Internet Protocol (IP) blocking, these techniques are heavy handed and in most circumstances not fit for purpose.”

Other issues

The government had also proposed a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner and an examination on whether there should be new criminal offence for cyber-bullying.

The AFP said police would be happy to work with an e-Safety Commissioner.

“By taking a proactive and educative focus, the Commissioner could actively work to reduce harassment and bullying, and provide appropriate support services to young people.”

However, the AFP said a new cyber-bullying law was not necessary: “The AFP considers that section 474.17 of the Criminal Code is more than adequate to facilitate prosecution of cyber-bullying cases where appropriate. Rather than being ‘too general’, the AFP considers that the breadth of section 474.17 is its strength, capturing a wide range of behaviours in a rapidly evolving online environment.”

“Further, creating a new, specific cyber-bulling offence could lead to confusion about the application of the existing offence.”

Facebook agreed there should not be a new offence because there are already laws in effect. Instead, more work should be done to educate people on the existing laws, it said.

The Australian Information Industry Association resisted new regulations in general and advocated more education instead.

“We believe that the current proposal introduces a high degree of bureaucracy and ‘process’ which will not lead to a reduction in harmful behaviours towards children,” the AIIA said.

“The resources required to establish a new entity in government could be better directed towards initiatives which address the underlying causes of bullying (including cyber bullying), recognising that often cyber bullying is one element of a broader problem of bullying which occurs both online and across the community.”

The government’s proposals had won some early support from security professionals, with Symantec calling the proposals a “promising start.”

Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to the minister for communications, said the government will carefully review the feedback as it develops legislation.

"It is clear that all stakeholders share the same objective, that is, to protect children from online dangers such as cyber bullying,” Fletcher said in a statement.

The complete list of submissions is available from the Department of Communications.

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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