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Liberals propose law to regulate social media

Abbott's plan calls for networks to have staff thinking about the children

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Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott has floated a suite of online child safety ideas that would include legislation to regulate social media, which would become answerable to a “Children’s e-Safety Commissioner” charged with taking “a national leadership role in online safety for children.”

The proposals stand a very good chance of becoming law as the opposition is well ahead in opinion polls.

The ideas are outlined in a discussion paper (PDF) on the topic children and the internet.

Stopping cyber-bullying is the paper’s main target, and it suggests Australia go about doing so with the development of “co-operative regulatory scheme”, defined by legislation, that would compel “online social media outlets with a certain minimum number threshold of accounts or customers in Australia” to “establish and publish an approved process by which complaints can be made about specific content that is targeted at, and likely to cause harm to, an Australian child and for further process to be established that outlines how this content will be rapidly removed.”

The paper says these guidelines would only be developed after industry consultation.

The paper outlines a process whereby social networks would have 48 hours to respond to a complaint. If a dispute arose after assessment by a social network, the source of the complaint could ask the e-Safety Commissioner to review the material. Any decision by the Commissioner to take material down would be binding on the social network.

Third parties could also ask the Commissioner to become involved, an avenue seen as ensuring the service does not become a censor.

Abbott has also said “our proposal is that every one of these large social media organisations should have a designated officer who is responsible for handling this kind of issue in Australia and we are going to insist that the hands off approach which has largely been adopted up until now cannot continue.“

That rhetoric will go down well in Australia, where several cases of teenagers committing suicide have recently been reported. Facebook pages in which anonymous adolescent poster rate the performance of their sexual partners have also attracted community ire, with The Social Network sometimes slow to respond.

The discussion paper rules out similar approaches for material pertaining to adults, saying that to regulate more widely would restrict freedom of speech.

Yet Australia has also debated the limits of that freedom of late, after citizens posted lists of unlicensed police cars’ number plates. Facebook was again slow to respond to, or act on, requests from government regarding such material.

The discussion paper’s content also needs to be understood in the context of the recent decision by the current government to abandon a comprehensive internet filter. Abbott says the five years it took to make that decision were time that could have been better spent on a more constructive approach.

But Abbott’s party, the Liberals, may also find a trap in the paper, as it notes that filter software has little public profile. While in government, the Liberals implemented an extensive give-away of filtering software.

The rest of the world, your Australia-based correspondent imagines, will wonder how the nation can go from deciding to lay off the Internet to once again proposing centralised regulations in the space of a few weeks. ®

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