Cyber-bullying: Industry against proposals to regulate social media networks


As many as one in three Australian children has experienced some form of cyber-bullying, yet the system to control bad behaviour on social media networks is voluntary, with the industry largely self-regulated. The Federal Government has released a discussion paper proposing a number of changes to help make children safer online, but critics of the proposal say another layer of bureaucracy is not the answer. Cristina Asarloglou sobs as she talks about her daughter Anastasia, who is among the thousands of Australian children who have experienced bullying online. "She said to me that she didn't want to live anymore and I couldn't believe a child at eight years old could say that she didn't want to live anymore," Ms Asarloglou said. "Bullying has always existed, but now with online bullying it just intensifies it. "Anything to help kids that are being affected by this is something because I believe it is an epidemic."

For some children the relentless bullying becomes too much. Chloe Fergusson took her own life six months ago at the age of 15. Her sister Cassie Whitehill is calling for tougher bullying laws and enforceable take down orders, and has set up a website promoting what she calls "Chloe's law". "If we can just save one young person from taking their own life or being affected by bullying then we've achieved our goal," she said. Cyber safety consultant says voluntary system not working. Cyber safety consultant Alastair MacGibbon says the current system in Australia, where the removal of damaging material from social media sites is voluntary, is not working. "You talk to parents who ask 'what can I do if I have been going to providers and nothing gets done, who can I turn to?' And there is no answer for them at the moment," he said.

The Government hopes to provide an answer, and has received almost 100 submissions in response to its discussion paper on children's e-safety. The measures announced include the establishment of an e-safety commissioner, with the power to have harmful material removed quickly. "This scheme would be backed by legislation and so it would apply to large social media sites," said Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher. "As with any legislation there would be an obligation to comply with the requirements and a failure to comply would carry some sanctions." Mr MacGibbon supports the idea of some form of penalty. "I think a civil regime of penalties where offenders who put content online can be fined, if they don't take that content down, and service providers who don't do the right thing... can equally be fined as well, is a good thing," he said.

But not everyone welcomes the Government's proposals. David Holmes from the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA), which represents social media networks like Google and Facebook, says under the current system, companies can remove bullying material within 24 to 48 hours.
"We don't disagree with the purpose of what we are trying to achieve, which is to make that take down faster. We just don't believe legislation is the way to do it," he said. He says another layer of bureaucracy will not help. "The big guys that this proposed legislation is looking at really are leading the way globally, it is in their interest to look after their members online," he said. "So they are well and truly making sure that the bullies get eradicated."

But Mr MacGibbon disagrees. "If the regime for notification and take down is working, then there is no burden at all having an e-safety commissioner for children," he said. "If, however, as many of us suspect, there are complaints being made to these social networking sites and either no action or the wrong action is being taken, then it might well be a burden to them and I would suspect the average Australian would say 'good, put a burden on them'."