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New Australian E-Safety Commissioner could be censorship czar

The Australian government is preparing to legislate wide-ranging internet censorship, and hoping that sentence won’t scare the hell out of you if they shout “children!”

They’re planning to institute a Children’s E-Safety Commissioner with the power to demand that large social media sites remove material deemed harmful to children or possibly face large fines.

No one can argue with the goal of protecting children, which is exactly why they phrased it like that. But there’s a huge difference between tackling those who target children and erasing swathes of material “deemed harmful to young people”. Because the latter could be absolutely anything the government wants.

They’ve even got “deemed” in their declaration: it doesn’t have to be provably bad, just something they said was bad. And in electronic terms, the Australian government has a worse censorship record than an Oceanian clerk who keeps knocking his inkwell over his work.

“This is about getting informal and rapid action to get content taken down,” said Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher, in a way which is terrifying if you take a second to think about what those words mean.

He’s talking about censorship without full formal legal channels, or time for appeal. He’s talking about the government pointing at anything it doesn’t like and making it disappear like they were using Harry Potter’s wand: the magical power to erase by using something meant for children.

Targeting social media sites is also a powerful mechanism of control. These sites are registered business concerns, and many have already shown that they’re prepared to bow to local regulation if it means they can keep making local money. Threatening them with fines ensures obedience. It forces a choice between the idealism and IPOs.

Even without these possibilities, the problem of the top-down approach is its clumsiness. You end up with large waves of banned material, instead of specific help for the people under threat.

A real solution to social media’s toxic problems is improved reporting and reaction tools. For example, recently I reported a violently abusive user on twitter. I was given three options: was I the target, or immediate family of the target, or anyone else in the world who saw the rape threats? On clicking the third I was allowed to spend five minutes filling out the rest of the form, only to receive an automated mail telling me that I, and everyone else in the world, would be automatically ignored.

It seems that anyone in the world can abuse another user, but she’s on her own to do anything about it. Which is sort of the problem with online abuse in the first place.

What we need is more powerful tools to protect individual users. But since suspending everyone sending abuse would damage those upward-trending user graphs the services need to attract investors, they’d need to be forced to be faster about it. And that’s where legal pressure would be better put.

About the author

Luke McKinney is a columnist for Cracked.com, CBS, and RETRO magazine, and a gun for hire.

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Comments (1)

    Paul Fletcher MP

    Thursday 25 September 2014

    To the editor,

    I’d like to point out a range of factual errors in the article ‘New Australian e-Safety Commissioner could be censorship czar’. The statement that the government is preparing to “legislate wide-ranging internet censorship” is incorrect, as is the claim that the scheme will cover “absolutely anything the government wants”.

    The Coalition Government has announced it will appoint a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner to take a national leadership role in online safety for children. We will ensure that there is an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get harmful cyber-bullying material that targets Australian children removed from large social media sites.

    The scheme applies specifically to cyber-bullying material – that is, content targeted at and harmful to an Australian child. It is not a general content regulation scheme. These measures will apply only to communications directed at children; they have no impact on freedom of speech between adults. In addition, they will only apply where a child (that is, someone under 18) at whom cyber-bullying material is targeted (or an adult on the child’s behalf) makes a complaint.

    The Commissioner will oversee light-touch regulation of large social media sites to ensure rapid removal of cyber-bullying material targeted at and harmful to an Australian child. The Commissioner will also have the power to issue a notice requiring the person who posted the cyber-bullying material to take it down. If the person does not comply the Commissioner will be able to refer the matter to police.

    The article incorrectly claims that the scheme will impose “censorship without full formal legal channels, or time for appeal”. There are already criminal law provisions which address cyber-bullying behaviour – for example, section 474.15 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which deals with ‘using a carriage service to make a threat’ and section 474.17 which deals with ‘using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence.’ The Commissioner will act as key contact point, triaging complaints, and where necessary referring behaviour that meets a criminal standard to the police.

    It is worth pointing out that large social media sites today have terms of use which allow them to remove material on a range of grounds, including cyber-bullying. The arrangements which the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner will administer are designed to interwork with the existing processes of the large social media sites.

    A very clear principle is that the first step is for the complainant to report the cyber-bullying material to the large social media site under its established processes. If a site receives a complaint and acts on it promptly, there will be no need for the complainant to go to the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner – and the scheme will have no impact at all on the operation of the site’s normal processes. It is only if the site does not respond that Commissioner may issue a notice to the participating social media site to remove the cyber-bullying material.

    In our society, there are a range of areas where we put in place extra protections for children. The Government has responded to widespread community concern that more should be done to protect Australian children from harmful cyber-bullying material and to give them the safest possible online environment.