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Tech giants to be held to account over cyber bullying

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Major social media sites like Facebook and Twitter could be fined up to $17,000 a day if they fail to comply with orders to take down cyber bullying messages and material, under measures proposed by the Federal Government.

Reflecting mounting community concern about the use of social media to attack, denigrate and intimidate young people, Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher has introduced legislation that seeks to make social media providers accountable for messages carried on their sites.

The legislation calls for the creation of a National Children’s E-Safety Commissioner to oversee and administer a consumer complaints system. The commissioner would have powers to order that cyber bullying messages targeting children be taken down.

Under the proposal, the commissioner would become involved if a site fails to respond to a complaint within 48 hours. Where a provider does not comply with a take-down notice, the commissioner will not only have the power to issue a fine, but also to seek a court injunction and to publicly name and shame non-compliant services.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler commended the Government for taking such a tough stance on the use of social media and the internet to attack, intimidate and harass young people.

“The harm in the community being caused by cyber bullying demanded a strong response,” A/Professor Owler. “Too many young people are taking their own lives or inflicting self-harm, and bullying can often be an underlying factor.”

Intentional self-harm is the leading cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 24 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with 324 teenagers and young adults dying by their own hand in 2012, while six boys and eight girls younger than 15 years committed suicide.

In addition, thousands more entertain thoughts of self-harm and suicide – last year, the national telephone crisis service for the young, Kids Helpline, received calls from almost 16,000 children and young adults who were assessed to have self-injury and self-harming behaviour.

While the statistics do not include a breakdown of how many instances involved bullying, there is evidence that around a quarter of children between Years 4 and 9 are bullied every few weeks.

A/Professor Owler said that although many factors contributed to children and young people harming themselves, the pervasive use of social media and the internet among young people could be a source of vulnerability for some.

“Many children in Australia are happy and healthy, but some children are clearly not, and they are vulnerable and susceptible to bullying,” he said. “Not all who are cyber bullied will have suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harming behaviour, but the sad reality is that there are documented cases of suicide resulting from cyber bullying.”

The Government’s proposed legislation calls for the creation of a two-tiered complaints system, depending on the size and location of the social network provider.

Twitter, Facebook and other large organisations would be accorded tier 2 status, which would make them liable for civil penalties, court injunctions and other ‘enforcement undertakings’, while smaller providers and those with only nominal corporate representation in Australia, such as Snapchat and smaller niche social networks could apply to be accredited as tier 1.

To be accredited, they would have to agree to comply within 48 hours with directions to remove content deemed harmful by the commissioner, but would not be subject to direct enforcement measures. Instead, where they repeatedly refuse to comply with take-down orders, they may have their accreditation revoked.

In addition to regulating providers, it is envisaged that the Children’s E-Safety Commissioner will also be able to ask individuals who post cyber bullying material to refrain from any further such activity, and apologise to the child who was the target of the intimidation or abuse.

More controversially, under the Government’s legislation the commissioner would have authority to disclose information to school principals, teachers, parents and guardians in order to help resolve complaints.

While this may help incidents escalating, there are concerns that knowledge their complaints may be conveyed to parents and teachers may increase the reluctance of young people to report instances of cyber bullying. Already, there is suspicion it is being underreported by children concerned that if they report they are being bullied, they will have their access to the internet restricted or blocked altogether.

The AMA was among a number of organisations that made submissions to the Government as it developed its cyber bullying legislation, noting that there was increasing concern in the medical profession about the effect of bullying on the health and wellbeing of young people.

A/Professor Owler said the arrangements were a “good start” by the Government in an emerging area of activity and regulation.

Adrian Rollins