Tech giants could face new file scanning rules by year-end

Justin Hendry

Australia’s eSafety regulator is working to have online safety standards that will force tech giants to scan cloud storage services for illegal and harmful internet content in place before the end of the year.

But government officials are already warning of an uphill battle that could see work push into next year, with the local tech sector yet to be consulted on the binding standards that will carry fines of almost $700,000 a day.

The standards are being developed after the designated internet services (DIS) and relevant electronic services (RES) codes developed by industry associations were rejected by eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant after two years of development.

Despite expressing concerns with an earlier set of codes and requesting that they be redrafted, the Commissioner in June ruled that the codes would not be registered as they failed to meet minimum expectations. Five other codes were accepted.

Image: Aun

A major sticking point was that the DES and RES codes did not require companies to detect and flag child sexual abuse material in apps, website and file and photo storage services like Apple iCloud and Google Drive, and email services and some partially encrypted messaging service.

“For eSafety, these and other basic requirements are non-negotiable, and while we don’t take this decision lightly, we feel that moving to industry standards is the right one to protect the Australian community,” Ms Inman Grant said at the time.

Tech giants like Google are already using Hash Matching Technology to automatically flag child sexual abuse material that has previously been reported, while Apple scrapped plans for similar technology late last year.

On Tuesday, Morag Bond, the executive manager of industry regulation and legal services at the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, provided an update on the development of the standards during a hearing of the parliamentary inquiry into the influence of international digital platforms.

In response to questions from Greens Senator David Shoebridge, Ms Bond said that initial work on preparing the standards had begun and that the agency aimed to have them in place before the end of the year. However, she noted there are still a number of steps to go through before then.

“We’re preparing drafting instructions, [the standards] will have to be prepared, we’ll have to consult – there’s a four-week period of consultation – and then we have to table before the Houses of Parliament, so we were aiming for the end of this year,” she said.

Asked by Senator Shoebridge why she had referred to the timeframe for the standards in past tense, Ms Bond said, “we are still aiming for the end of this year, I’m just conscious of the work that’s involved”.

Ms Bond also updated the committee on the online safety code relating to search engines like Google and Bing which the eSafety Commissioner had reserved her decision on in June due to the emergence of generative artificial intelligence.

She said the eSafety Commissioner has been “back and forth” with the Communications Alliance and the Digital Industry Group Inc, the industry group representing Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google, but is now looking to make a decision.

“These codes deal with class one content. Class one content will include deep fake synthetic imagery, which is created by generative AI. “So, just to be clear, we’re actually in a different position to a lot of other jurisdictions around the world, which is obviously a positive,” Ms Bond added.

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