Major parties staying silent on social media regulation

For the first time, Australians are heading to the polls in an age of hyper-partisan, shareable fake news – and social media regulation should be a key election issue

Dr Jennifer Beckett, University of Melbourne

Dr Jennifer Beckett

Published 13 May 2019

In the lead up to the announcement of this Federal election, a terrorist launched attacks on mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring another 49.

Unlike other attacks of its nature in the past, the killer livestreamed the violence on Facebook.

Following the terror attacks in Christchurch, there has been public discussion about the level of culpability of social media platforms. Picture: Getty Images

Since then, there’s been much public discussion about the level of culpability social media platforms had in the spread of the attacker’s message and also in incubating his attitude.

In response, Australian Parliament quickly passed the new Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019 which requires that internet service providers, content providers and hosts (that is, social media companies) “ensure the expeditious removal of [abhorrent violent material]” from their sites.

At the time, Shadow-Attorney General Mark Dreyfuss, acknowledged the Labor party had “serious concerns” about the policy, citing its “poor [drafting]” and fears that it “would not achieve its intended purpose” though ultimately did not stand in its way.

These concerns have been echoed by others, with particular focus given to enforcement (for example, what exactly constitutes “expeditious removal”) and the manner in which fines for breaches are determined.

All of which I tend to agree with.

But live streaming of “abhorrent violence” is not the only issue to consider this coming election when it comes to social media.

Dangers to democratic process

For the first time, we are headed to the polls in an age of hyper-partisan, easily shareable fake news - which we have already seen this election - and psychographic profiling. All pose demonstrable dangers to the democratic process, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Brexit, and alleged Russian tampering in US elections has shown.

The Australian parliament passed the new Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019. Picture: Getty Images

In addition, issues such as cyberbullying, harassment and image-based abuse are high in the public consciousness.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to increase the maximum penalties for trolling and introduce new offences related to the sexual abuse of children online.

However, there seems to be little understanding within the Coalition and across the political spectrum when it comes to:

• the regulation of social media platforms

• the rise and spread of fake news

• the abuse and security of user data

• the fomentation of hate speech

• how cyberbullying and harassment play out in the real world, and their impact

All of these issues significantly contributed to create the environment in which a tragedy such as Christchurch could occur.

But the major parties, with the exception of The Greens who are calling for an inquiry and regulation of social media, have failed to make policy connections to better online governance, whether in relation to data handling or content regulation.

Protecting your data and combatting fake news

This is not the case in other areas of the world, particularly the European Union.

In the last year new legislation has come into force to protect user data via the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including the right to be forgotten. This regulation has already affected global internet practice, with the most familiar of these being the cookie collection notifications we now see on all websites.

In the EU, new legislation has come into force to protect user data via the General Data Protection Regulation. Picture: Getty Images

In order to combat the spread of fake news, particularly in the lead up to the European elections, the EU has also requested monthly reports from Internet Service Providers (or ISPs) which will be made public.

This is part of their Code of Practice on Disinformation, a self-regulatory code of practice for service providers, to which Facebook are a signatory.

Regulating speech and conduct online

In Germany, the ‘network enforcement law’ (NetzDG) applies similar force to content hosts.

Where the Australian legislation focuses on only visual violence, NetzDG extends to other “obviously illegal” content such as hate speech and defamation.

Unlike the Australian legislation criterion of “expeditious” removal, NetzDG allows content hosts 24 hours to remove content after notification or up to seven days for complex cases.

Hosts are also expected to provide transparency reports on the type of content they’re moderating and why.

While neither the GDPR nor NetzDG are perfect measures, they were born from more nuanced conversations and coherent policy positions than the Australian legislation.

Creating good policy

That ISPs need regulating no longer seems to be up for debate, even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself has called for regulation, but we should be wary of knee-jerk legislation that misses the wood for the trees.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called for greater regulation of the internet. Picture: Getty Images

We should also be wary of falling into the trap of regulating social media providers in ways they want to be regulated.

What we need from our politicians instead is good policy from which to create informed legislation.

This includes a commitment to international cooperation on global policy and proper resourcing as well as training for those who deal with the unintended consequences of platform mis-governance including police, social workers and educators.

All of which belongs to public discourse that parties have not properly begun to engage in and policy we have yet to see.

A version of this article also appears on Election Watch.

Banner: Getty Images

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