Social media giants call for narrower role for eSafety Commissioner

Group representing Google, Facebook and Twitter calls for narrower role for eSafety Office

An industry organisation whose members include Facebook, Google, Oath and Twitter has questioned the scope of the eSafety Commissioner’ responsibilities and called for the government to end duplication when it comes to policing social media content.

The government recently commissioned independent reviews of Australia’s key online safety legislation. One review is focused on the Office of the eSafety Commissioner while a second is focused on the Online Content Scheme, which was established by Schedule 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner was originally established in 2015 as the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner.

Last year the government moved to formally broaden the responsibilities of the office, introducing legislation to transform it into the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

Alongside the broadening of the office’s remit has been a significant expansion of its powers; most recently the Enhancing Online Safety (Non-Consensual Sharing of Intimate Images) Act 2018 has given the eSafety Commissioner the responsibility of administering a take-down notice scheme to combat so-called ‘revenge porn’.

In a submission to the inquiry into the office, the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), which draws together the operators of the world’s most popular social media platforms, has urged caution “in treating the eSafety Office as a first responder to victims of bullying or family violence similar to a law enforcement agency”.

“The eSafety Office was established with the twin purposes of creating a national leadership role (in the Commissioner) to promote online safety for children and to operate the complaint handling mechanism,” the group argues. “Since its inception, the remit of the eSafety Office has been expanded significantly leading to a stretching of resources and a plethora of disparate initiatives that are outside of the scope of the enacting legislation.”

Many of the eSafety Office’s processes for combating bullying material or other problematic content duplicate other processes offered by major social networks, DIGI argues.

“The creation of a new reporting process within the eSafety Office for cyberbullying content not only duplicates the content removal processes already in place on digital platforms, but also risks confusing users about where they should report,” the submission states.

It notes that in 2016-17 the eSafety Office received only 305 complaints — a fraction of those that social media companies received through their own reporting tools. The office has issued no civil penalties in the three years since the scheme to combat cyberbullying material was introduced, DIGI states.

“Oftentimes the platform was already in the process of removing the content when the complaint came in from the eSafety Office,” the submission says. “In terms of informal approaches relating to cyberbullying from the eSafety Office, each DIGI member company has received a very low number of reports over the last three years.”

Other efforts by the eSafety Office also duplicate existing services, DIGI claims: “For example, we understand that efforts by the eSafety Office to support services that support people in domestic violence situations have duplicated some of the work already being undertaken by organisations like WESNET, a national women’s peak advocacy body which works on behalf of women and children who are experiencing or have experienced domestic or family violence.”

The role of the office should be “reoriented” to focus on education and awareness among parents and on promoting behavioural change, rather than being an enforcement body and duplicating existing efforts to combat abusive material, DIGI said.

“Online safety is a joint effort between government, industry and the community, and each sector undertakes many valuable initiatives in this space,” the submission states. “We would encourage greater awareness-raising for these initiatives rather than duplicating the significant investment already made by other groups.”

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