Gov’t social media plan a mess

James Riley
Editorial Director

The government’s further crackdown on social media companies and their users is another “knee-jerk reaction” that will not address the actual problems in the space, according to the Greens and tech experts.

The series of new policies and penalties to “crackdown on social media platforms and online predators and trolls” were announced by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison at weekend.

It follows the controversial passing of other social media laws during the last sitting week of the 45th Parliament, allowing for the fining and jailing of tech executives of companies that do not remove “abhorrent violent material” quickly enough.

Under-done weirdness: Social media proposals are a knee-jerk reaction

The new effort include an increase of the maximum jail sentence from three years to five years for someone who uses a carriage service – such as Facebook – to menace, harass or “cause offence”.

If it wins the upcoming election, the government would also introduce legislation forcing major social media platforms to produce “transparency reports” on the number and type of reports and complaints about illegal, abusive and predatory content by their users, along with their responses, similar to the Online Harms White Paper process in the UK.

Mr Morrison said the government would also try to work with social media platforms, app stores and ISPs to ensure that their offerings marketed to children come with the most restrictive privacy and safety settings by default, that they make available to parents a filtered internet service which block access to sites identified by the eSafety Commissioner, and provide information about online safety and parental control settings.

This would initially be voluntary, but the Coalition would consider legislating the measures if tech companies do not adopt the new guidelines.

The new social media regulations would be packaged into the Online Safety Act, a “single, consolidated piece of online safety legislation that includes greater transparency and reporting requirements for industry”.

Announcing the new crackdown, Mr Morrison firmly positioned the new measures as directed at online trolls.

The centrepiece of the announcement is the increase in jail-time for online trolling, but Greens senator and digital rights spokesperson said this isn’t addressing the actual issue at hand.

“The problem isn’t the existence or non-existence of a penalty in law, the problem is police don’t have any idea of how to enforce the law,” Senator Jordon Steele-John told

“What we need to see if the government or the Labor party is serious about these issues is policy around improving cognisance of policy and the ability of police to work with victims,” he said.

“At the moment there’s this horrible ‘get off Twitter, love’ mentality – victims are just brushed off. If you want to keep people safe online and utilise the laws, you need to talk about increasing police understanding of these issues, and the Liberals and Labor haven’t said a single thing about that.”

Regulation of social media platforms is needed, Senator Steele-John said, but requires careful consideration and consultation, rather than rushed policies.

“What we’re seeing is knee-jerk reaction after knee-jerk reaction, and that’s not how you make good policy in this complicated and now very emotive space,” he said.

“It’s unquestionable that social media entities need to do more to protect the rights of their users, and their right to be free from coming across vile and violent content. We need an informed human rights-based tech-led conversation about the role of social media and the rise of the far right in this country.”

Former Digital Transformation Office chief executive Paul Shetler also criticised the government’s announcement, raising particular concern with the “causing offence” aspect of the crime’s definition.

“It’s just an international embarrassment. They’re saying, ‘we’re going to throw people in jail for this, we’re going to jail Facebook executives and now we’re going to jail Facebook users for up to five years for causing offence’,” Mr Shetler told

“When I moved to Australia I thought it was a normal country with some basic ideas about freedoms and the role of government, but it just seems like in the last year the government has gone off the rails.”

“He’s trying to grab the headlines, he has to come out and said these crazy things to get people to pay attention. But my worry is if they do get in and they have made all these pledges, are they going to implement this kind of insanity?”

The new announcement showed no understanding of the actual issues at play, tech industry analyst Sandy Plunkett said.

“This is nothing more than political posturing from a government that has consistently displayed increasing dumbness about life and work in the 21st century,” Ms Plunkett told

“If this is the nature and level of conversation about social media and the digital age, Australia is truly screwed, there’s no escaping it,” she said.

“The 21st century is making enormous new demands on Australians, and there are way too few leaders that have the guts to tell them.”

This sort of approach to tech policy-making will lead to similar new laws like the controversial encryption powers, Ms Plunkett said.

“The lack of general savvy and curiosity about digital micro and mega-trends among our leaders and our society is precisely why we got the AA bill passed by both parties before Christmas,” she said.

“It is precisely why we have low economic and export complexity, and it’s precisely why our leaders debates and all of our ‘news’ never focused on who controls our future and why.”

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