Online safety codes hang on ‘red line’ issues

James Riley
Editorial Director

Australia’s eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant will take delivery on Friday of the final drafts of the online safety codes that have been under development by local tech industry associations.

But it is far from clear whether the re-written drafts will be accepted by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

Ms Inman Grant met with industry groups on Monday to further discuss what she considers are “red line” issues, including the expectation that digital platform companies proactively seek out child sexual abuse material and terrorist content.

She said that while the industry had improved on the first draft of the codes – which the eSafety Commissioner rejected as not adequate last month – the industry associations were asked to take Ms Inman Grant’s ‘red line’ concerns back to their members before handing her office the final draft codes on Friday.

Communications minister Michelle Rowland with eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant

Ms Inman Grant was in Canberra to launch with Communications minister Michelle Rowland new research into the online experiences of First Nations people and communities.

“In terms of the industry codes, I met with the industry yesterday to talk about some of our red line issues,” she said.

“The industry has come some way since they first issued the draft codes. The industry officials are taking these back to the [member] companies. They will be delivering the final codes to me on Friday.

“I can’t presuppose what the outcomes will be, [but] I can make very clear what my red line issues are.”

Ms Inman Grant said the those ‘red line’ issues were related to the DIS [designated internet service] and the RES [relevant electronic services] code and the expectations of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner that companies are proactively seeking out child sexual abuse materials and terrorist content.

She also noted an expectation that any risk assessments the platform companies take must be “clear and defensible”.

Ms Inman Grant said her office would be putting in place additional resources ahead of the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, to ensure that digital platforms are not used to spread misinformation, disinformation or hate speech.

Minister Rowland and Ms Inman Grant will next week meet with industry representatives to discuss measures to ensure that referendum on the Indigenous Voice is not marred by the kind of misinformation or hate speech that featured in the Marriage Equality ballot.

“We saw very clearly with the marriage equality plebiscite that LGBTQI+ abuse was heightened, and that the prevalence [of abuse] was much greater,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“We didn’t have the powers that we do now under the Online Safety Act. We do have powers now around serious adult cyber abuse, and we plan to use them.”

Ms Inman Grant said she was generally satisfied with the work of Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – and of TikTok but said although Twitter had been active in recent weeks, its performance in responding to issues was patchy.

“We have some legal notices out to Twitter right now around child sexual abuse material sexual extortion and their algorithms, and whether they might be propelling harmful content through the changes in these algorithms,” she said

“They committed to me that they were they are working on this [but] they have a severely diminished Trust and Safety Team.”

Twitter currently has no full-time trust and safety staff covering Australia and New Zealand. Where urgent problems arise, Ms Inman Grant said her office escalates directly to Twitter corporate headquarters.

“We’ve seen some recent … positive activity in terms of taking down content. But I would say that it’s spotty, and less consistent than it was when they were fully staffed.”

Ms Rowland had written to Twitter raising concerns about the lack of staff in Australia to deal with online safety issues and is clearly unimpressed that the company has not responded to this letter.

“I have written some time ago to Twitter, noting this fact of the decimation of the Australian staff, but also the clear expectations and requirements that they need [to consider] under Australian law,” she said.

“Their non-response to date has been noted. They have been put on notice that the first priority of the Albanese Government is to keep Australians safe.

“I’ll continue to consult with the regulator with the eSafety Commissioner to ensure that whatever action we take is graduated and proportionate – but at all times Twitter should be under no illusion. This government places the safety of Australians above all else.”

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