Encrypted messaging apps should be subject to at least the same regulations and laws as the likes of Facebook and Google to help combat online extremism, a Victorian inquiry has heard.
A group of Swinburne University academics – Associate Professor Christine Agius, Dr Belinda Barnet, Associate Professor Lucy Nicholas, PhD candidate Janice Woolley and Professor Kay Cook – appeared before the Victorian inquiry into far-right extremism on Wednesday.
They warned of how extremists have abandoned traditional social media platforms such as Facebook in favour of more secure and private services like Telegram. These platforms are also not subject to the same restrictions as the social media giants.
“Many far-right groups and figures, now deplatformed from major social media platforms like Facebook, have migrated to encrypted messaging services such as Telegram, or Gab, a ‘free speech’ social media platform,” the academics told the committee.
“These services allow them to distribute hateful and potentially dangerous content without fear of moderation. These platforms should be subject to the same level of scrutiny and regulatory pressure as larger platforms like Facebook are.”
Facebook and other tech giants have signed on to a voluntary code aiming to combat online misinformation and disinformation, have implemented a range of algorithmic tools to detect extremist content and are subject to the Abhorrent Violent Material regime.
The new Online Safety Act has also given the eSafety Commissioner the power to compel platforms to take down abusive material within 24 hours or incur a fine.
“New algorithmic tools have been developed by companies in addition to pressures exerted by governments and legislation to control extremist content. The various company approaches are far from perfect and still need work and legislative attention – but extremist groups and individuals are drifting to more accommodating platforms in response,” the submission said.
“It’s important for both law enforcement and government to realise that this migration is happening; it’s important that new legislation is tailored to these environments too.”
The group of academics also recommended that the definitions of “cyber-abuse” and “online harm” be revisited under the Online Safety Act.
While these are matters for the federal government to address, the academics called on the Victorian government and other states to advocate for change on a national level.
In its submission, Liberty Victoria warned against handing any more power to law enforcement around encrypted messaging services without proper consideration of the impact of this on privacy and other human rights.
“Police and security services already have an extensive range of surveillance capabilities and methodologies, many of which are protected from disclosure to the public by public interest immunity or ‘matter of state’ immunity. Great care must be taken before concluding that such powers are inadequate,” the Liberty Victoria submission said.
“Encrypted communications platforms and the ‘dark web’ may be regularly used for legitimate purposes in order to preserve privacy, such as whistleblowing. It is Liberty Victoria’s submission that any surveillance or intervention by law enforcement or intelligence agencies must be closely supervised by independent judicial officers in order to not unduly impinge on the privacy rights of citizens.
“The potential for scope creep is an ever-present privacy risk in the context of the surveillance of digital communications by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”
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