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Social networks give Australia a throat to choke

Regular government meetings the prize for signing complaint-handling plan

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Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and YouTube have stuck out their necks and offered Australia’s federal government the chance to choke them under a new “Cooperative Arrangement for Complaints Handling” launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In return, the four get regular meetings with government.

Cyber-bullying and trolling have become activities of public concern in Australia, after a local newspaper launched a “Stop the Trolls” campaign in the wake of several incidents of self-harm by youth bullied online. Minor celebrities have also endured online harassment, with one hospitalised as a result. Governments at State and Federal level have both bemoaned a lack of accountability from social networks, which have very little presence in Australia. Twitter, for example, has no local employee. Facebook is thought to have has a handful. Neither operates a complaints-handling mechanism, a lack that has proved contentious when hate speech banned under Australian law has appeared on social networks. Pages listing the licence plates of unmarked police cars or containing material with the potential to prejudice a murder trial have also raised eyebrows down under, as Facebook was slow to respond to suggestions either be removed.

The “Cooperative Arrangement” (PDF) is the Federal Government’s response to the problem and will see the four signatories provide “a contact person(s) with whom the Australian Government can discuss issues and any appropriate messaging to the community and media in response to issues as they arise.”

The four will also “have a process for reviewing and acting on complaints promptly” staffed by appropriately trained people and resourced “to the scale at which the social networking service (SNS) operates.”

A reporting requirement is part of the Arrangement, but as it is an agreement rather than legislation there’s no mandatory requirement or sanctions available to government if signatories don't file the paperwork.

The social networks do, however, score regular chats with government as the Agreement says social networks which sign up “will meet with government officials on a bilateral basis every six months to discuss trends and emerging issues” and will also be asked to “ … provide the Consultative Working Group on Cybersafety with information on trends and emerging issues every twelve months.”

Which could look like a lot of policy influence for signing up to a voluntary code, albeit one that will add some costs to hire the required staff.

Twitter is yet to sign up for the Agreement. Indeed, there is no evidence a single employee of the company has ever set foot in Australia. But Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently visited the company’s offices and came away saying an Australian outpost is imminent and today’s announcement said the social network is in discussions about signing up for the agreement. Gillard called out Twitter at the launch and called on it to sign up for the Arrangement, saying the network is responsible for much of the damage caused online.

The anti-bullying push is accompanied by new material in the life education program offered to seven to ten year olds in Australian schools. McAfee had a hand in the material’s development. ®

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