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Australia on path to social media regulation

Hate speech slips beneath Facebook’s attention threshold

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Australian MPs have started to call for legislative powers to compel social networks to swiftly remove offensive content, after Facebook failed to act decisively to remove a page containing numerous racist stereotypes of Australian aboriginals.

Facebook initially did nothing about the page, which disappeared briefly and then resurfaced marked as “controversial humour”.

The Social Network TM made some noises about freedom of speech, which apparently allows controversial humour even if it includes hate speech. At this point in the saga Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy said he felt the page was inappropriate and should be removed.

Facebook seems to have finally done so as it became apparent the page contravened Australia’s racial discrimination laws. Controversy over the page also exploded into mainstream media. Australia's media regulator and Racial Discrimination Commissioner are both looking into the incident.

That metastasis in turn produced a policy from the Opposition Liberal party, which is set to take power in Australia’s scheduled 2013 elections, and says it will “look to major social media providers to step up and display a greater degree of corporate social responsibility than we have seen to date.”

While there’s a fair degree of Yes Ministerism and “won’t someone think of the children-ism” in the policy sketch, emitted by MP and former telco executive Paul Fletcher, the language he chose was strong:

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that social media outlets like Facebook have undergone explosive growth in user numbers but have not yet adopted the standards of corporate social responsibility which longer-established media and communications companies meet – based on such indicators as the number of employees who are dedicated to engaging with law enforcement agencies or ensuring that content does not breach laws governing defamation and other matters.”

“While Facebook has an employee in Australia, its local resources for dealing with these issues are not on the same scale as other media and communications companies with a large presence in the Australian market. For example, the major telcos typically have law enforcement liaison units with ten or more employees.

Fletcher added that, from his vantage point, “It is clear that regulating social media providers using traditional approaches is difficult because their senior management and ownership is normally in other countries.”

Facebook has issued statements, reported widely, in which it proclaims information sharing is a jolly good idea, but recognises that it can sometimes cross moral or legislative lines.

Whether that stance will be enough to see Facebook and its brethren escape legislative curbs or other regulations is doubtful: the Liberal party is expected to sweep to power in 2013 and has long-opposed the incumbent Government’s stalled plans to introduce a national internet filter. The more-nuanced approach of forcing social networks to be more responsive will mean the opposition can hang tough while offering a constructive alterative to the filter, making it likely to feature on a new legislative agenda.

Whether the position adopted in the Discussion Paper Fletcher says his party will emit soon remains relevant by then is anyone’s guess. ®

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