Australian law could force Facebook, Google to strip content


The Online Safety Bill will also require Internet-service companies to provide identity and contract information about abusers on their platforms. Developed in response to the livestreamed terrorist attacks in New Zealand in 2019, the bill gives the nation’s eSafety Commissioner powers to rapidly block websites. — Dreamstime/TNS

Australia’s government has passed legislation to reduce cyber abuse, allowing it to force social media platforms such as Facebook Inc and Google to remove harmful material within 24 hours or be fined as much as Aus$415,000 (RM1.30mil).

The Online Safety Bill will also require Internet-service companies to provide identity and contract information about abusers on their platforms. Developed in response to the livestreamed terrorist attacks in New Zealand in 2019, the bill gives the nation’s eSafety Commissioner powers to rapidly block websites.

“The act provides stronger powers for the eSafety Commissioner to crack down on cyber-bullying of children, toxic online abuse, harmful content and the non-consensual sharing of intimate images,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said in a statement on Wednesday. He said the bill’s powers will be enforced after six months.

The bill strengthens penalties for online abuse and harassment, including up to five years imprisonment. The law will also require companies to keep an updated Online Content Scheme to do more to keep users safe online and give the eSafety Commissioner powers to require app stores to remove products enabling the provision of harmful kinds of online content.

Overreach concerns

Opponents, including Australian Greens, say the bill was rushed through without proper scrutiny and needs to be redrafted. The Electronic Frontiers Australia non-profit group wrote in a March 2 submission that it “allows individuals far too much leeway to censor the communications of Australians, no matter what those individuals say they plan to do”.

US Internet giants have taken a more collaborative approach with this legislation than their opposition to the government’s push to force them to pay for news. That law, passed earlier this year, drove the companies to negotiate hard to extract concessions, with Facebook at one stage blocking news on its Australian platform in protest.

Facebook has said it broadly supports the online abuse initiative, but it’s concerned about regulatory overreach with the extension of cyber-bullying takedown requests into private messaging.

Twitter Inc raised concern about creating an onerous burden for smaller players, saying "it is critically important to avoid placing requirements across the digital ecosystem that only large, mature companies can reasonably comply with”.

Alphabet Inc’s Google had urged the government to narrow the scope of the measure, as it could impose takedown responsibilities on cloud and web infrastructure providers.

“A request from the eSafety Commissioner to remove one single piece of content could result in a cloud infrastructure and platform service provider being mandated to remove a customer’s entire website and we suggest that this is not a desirable outcome,” the company wrote in its submission to the government. – Bloomberg

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