Push to force social media giants to maintain local teams

Twitter’s decision to axe all its Australian staff is “frustrating” the efforts of the online safety regulator to prevent child exploitation material, leading to calls for tech giants to be forced to maintain a local contingent of staff.

During a hearing of the ongoing inquiry into child exploitation on Monday, acting chief operating officer Toby Dagg said all government interactions with Twitter were now taking place through regional offices, complicating the work of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

“We share your concerns about the stripping out of Twitter’s capacity to respond to child sexual exploitation, in particular,” he said in response to questioning from Greens senator David Shoebridge.

“There are no Australia staff left here, and the Australian compliment was a really critical component of Twitter’s safety apparatus as far as we’re concerned.”

Twitter axed most of its 40-strong Australian workforce when Tesla billionaire Elon Musk took control of the company in November. The remainder of the company’s local staff were then let go last month.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant has previously written to Twitter seeking assurances from the company that it would continue to comply with Australia’s takedown scheme and other government requests.

Other tech giants like Meta, which owns social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, and Google continue to have locally based teams that can brief government and respond to country-specific issues should they arise, despite recent job losses.

Mr Dagg said that the regulator’s relationship with Twitter had previously been “really constructive” and “quite effective, particularly when it came to child sexual exploitation material”, but that this had changed.

“Now we do have contact with regional representatives but it’s not quite the same as having someone you can pick up the phone [to] and have a face-to-face meeting,” he told the committee on Monday.

Asked whether the providers of global platforms should be compelled to have local representatives to deal with the concerns of local regulators as a requirement of doing business in Australia, Mr Dagg said there are already expectations placed on providers.

“We would say that adequately staffing and resourcing trust and safety personnel constitutes an obvious component of that particular element of the Basic Online Safety Expectations (BOSE),” he said.

“Our expectations would be that companies as large as Twitter and others should properly fund and resource local representatives for a range of reasons, not the least of which being regulatory environments are particular to a jurisdiction.

“It can be very frustrating dealing with a company like Twitter at significant remove, where they don’t understand the particular regulatory conditions that apply.”

Senator Shoebridge told InnovationAus.com that it was “remarkable” that there were no local Twitter staff to respond to complaints and remove offensive and dangerous material at a time when online exploitation material is only growing.

“Having local staff is essential if a tech platform is going to keep children safe from online exploitation so it’s plain wrong that tech platforms can simply fire their staff without any repercussions from local laws or regulators,” he said.

“It should be mandatory for tech platforms operating in Australia to properly resource Australian offices to respond to regulators so they can rapidly prevent and address abuse.”

Mr Dagg foreshadowed that the eSafety Commissioner would this week issue the second round of legal notices to online service providers in a bid understand what measures they are taking to tackle child exploration.

The mechanism is one of three means available under the government’s BOSE to help ‘lift the hood’ on the online safety initiatives being pursued by social media, messaging, and gaming service providers.

In August, notices were issued to Apple, Meta (and WhatsApp), Microsoft (and Skype), Snap and online chat website owner Omegle, with civil penalties of up to $555,000-a-day on the table if the companies fail to respond within 28 days.

Senator Shoebridge is also concerned with the lack of transparency in the industry-led process to develop online industry codes, which were rejected by the eSafety Commissioner earlier this month for at least the second time.

The draft codes have been under development by the industry for nearly two years, and if accepted by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, would operate under the Online Safety Act 2021.

But the most recent version of the code has not been publicly released, and it will be up to the various industry groups involved in the drafting on whether to do so. Meta, who also spoke during in the hearing on Monday, is in favour of doing so.

“The fact the regulator is still asking permission from the industry about whether the public can even see the draft codes of practice tells you everything about how cooked the situation is – the industry answers to no one,” Senator Shoebridge said.

“We can’t rely on corporations to regulate themselves which is why we need the government to step up to protect our sensitive data and keep us safe online.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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