The Australian government is threatening Twitter with increased regulation if it does not hire more local staff to address online safety, after the company axed its local team and ignored the regulator.
Communications minister Michelle Rowland on Sunday wrote to the company demanding it do more to keep the platform safe and ensure it is complying with mounting online safety laws, as reports emerged about the latest round of job cuts at the company’s US operations.
“I urge you to do your part to keep Twitter users safe and ensure compliance with Australian law,” the minister’s letter, seen by InnovationAus.com, said.
“In this context I assure you the Australian government is prepared to regulate should Twitter’s declining Australian presence have a detrimental impact on the safety of users.”
In November last year, Twitter axed most of its 40-strong Australian workforce when Tesla billionaire Elon Musk took control of the company. The remainder of the company’s local staff were then let go last month and it now operates without a local policy or safety team.
The lack of personnel in the country has frustrated the eSafety Commissioner and its effort to prevent child exploitation material.
Twitter along with other company’s this month received legal notices from the Commissioner to detail the measures they are taking to tackle child exploitation material.
Foreshadowing problems in November when Mr Musk gained control, the regulator wrote to the company about potential threats to online safety and compliance with Australian laws under the “Chief Twit”.
But no substantive response was provided, so Ms Rowland wrote to the company’s US-based head of trust and safety Ella Irwin on Sunday. She warned Twitter’s “current structure and approach to trust and safety is now lacking in the Australian context” and a local public policy team would be a “vital interface” for the Australian regulator.
“Australian presence is important because government agencies need to engage quickly with Twitter representatives who understand the Australian context and can act on behalf of the company,” Ms Rowland said, noting the response to the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacks demonstrated the importance of such a relationship.
The letter comes as US media reports at least another 50 job cuts at Twitter, as the firm passes its eighth round of job cuts since Mr Musk took over. Around 2000 staff have been laid off since the billionaire took over.
Ms Rowland also flagged potential toxic content on the platform in the lead up to a referendum to recognise First Nations people in the Australian Constitution through a Voice to Parliament this year.
“Twitter and other platforms are a key forum where we expect discussion around the Voice to occur,” Ms Rowland’s letter said.
“We need platforms to be mindful about how hateful content that violates terms of service plays out in the Australian context, particularly given First Nations Australians already experience disproportionately high levels of abuse and harassment online.”
Providers of online services, including Twitter, can be required to show what steps the companies are taking to keep end users safe through the Australian government’s Basic Online Safety Expectations.
This requirement is part of the Online Safety Act, which also requires service providers to commit to online safety codes.
However, draft codes written by industry groups, including Twitter’s representative DIGI, were rejected by the regulator earlier this month because they were “unlikely to provide the appropriate community safeguards”. A final opportunity to draft stronger codes has been given.
The Albanese government has also committed to legislating new powers for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to regulate misinformation and disinformation on platforms like Twitter, after being unsatisfied by industry efforts under a voluntary scheme.
Faced with mounting scrutiny and government intervention, Ms Rowland urged Twitter to be proactive on online safety.
“It is in all of our interests that the internet is a safe and secure medium, able to deliver the benefits of digitalisation while protecting citizens from online harms,” she wrote.
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