Tech giants on notice over extremist content amid wait for new powers

Brandon How

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner has issued mandatory transparency notices to six of the biggest digital platforms, compelling them to share details about how they mitigate access to terror and violent extremist material.

The action has been taken as the Office of the eSafety Commissioner awaits amendments to the Basic Online Safety Expectations (BOSE) requiring annual transparency reports to be published.

Legal notices have been issued to Google, Meta, Twitter/X, WhatsApp, Telegram and Reddit, none of which have provided this information under an existing OECD voluntary framework.

The companies will have 49 days to comply with the notice, after which the eSafety Commissioner can issue infringement notices and pursue civil penalties through the federal court.

The first legal proceeding for breaches of a transparency notice commenced against Twitter/X at the end of 2023, although Greens Senator David Shoebridge has on several occasions argued that the enforcement process is ineffectual.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant at the World Economic Forum

In this instance, the tech giants must answer six questions on how they are tackling the online spread of terrorist and violent extremist material and activity.

Telegram and Reddit are also being asked to provide details of the “measures they have in place to detect and remove child sexual exploitation and abuse”.

Under the Online Safety Act, the eSafety Commissioner can issue transparency notices to digital platform providers that require them to detail the extent to which they are complying with the BOSE.

The expectations underpin six industry-designed codes of conduct and two forthcoming industry standards on combatting child sexual abuse and pro-terror material.

A three-month consultation on proposed amendments to the BOSE that seek to address recent developments like generative artificial intelligence concluded on February 16.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant on Tuesday said her office is concerned by reports that “terrorists and violent extremists are moving to capitalise on the emergence of generative AI” – in addition to ‘weaponising’ livestreaming, algorithms, and recommender systems – to proliferate harmful content online.

“The tech companies that provide these services have a responsibility to ensure that these features and their services cannot be exploited to perpetrate such harm and that’s why we are sending these notices to get a look under the hood at what they are and are not doing,” Ms Inman Grant said.

She referred to a recent OECD report that found Telegram has the highest prevalence of terrorist and violent extremist material among mainstream platforms. This is followed by Google-owned YouTube, Twitter/X, and Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram.

Meta-owned WhatsApp is ranked eighth while Reddit and YouTube are alleged to be driving white supremacist radicalisation.

“It’s no coincidence we have chosen these companies to send notices to as there is evidence that their services are exploited by terrorists and violent extremists,” Ms Inman Grant said.

Since the Online Safety Act came into effect, two transparency notices relating to child sexual exploitation and abuse on digital services have previously been issued as well as a transparency notice specifically to Twitter/X regarding online hate.

However, Twitter/X has failed to comply with the transparency notice and a subsequent infringement notice for $610,000, resulting in civil proceedings in December 2023.

During the February 2024 round of Senate Estimates Senator Shoebridge said the lacklustre state enforcement provisions in the Online Safety Act has emboldened Twitter/X to “have just thumbed their nose at [the eSafety Commissioner], at the laws of Australia and just said, ‘We’re not paying’”.

“You are below, as far as they are concerned. There is nothing we can do other than start a whole fresh set of proceedings,” Senator Shoebridge said at the time.

Ms Inman Grant agreed with Senator Shoebridge’s characterisation that Twitter/X’s actions highlight the need for “urgent law reform”.

“We have learned a lot in that we want to make sure that our fines and our enforcement powers are in line not only with domestic regulators but also internationally,” Ms Inman Grant said.

She also welcomed the commencement of the Online Safety Act review that will consider new investigative and enforcement powers. The expected timeline for the review had been brought forward by a year.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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