The Australian government has moved closer to clamping down on cyber bullying involving school-children or other young people. A bill introduced in Parliament lays the groundwork for tighter controls over social media sites and penalties involving service providers and individuals.
The Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 has passed its second reading. This proposal offers a raft of measures to protect children from cyber-bullies.
Paul Fletcher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull, said in an official statement this bill contains important measures to protect children from cyber-bullying.
The bill will be debated in the House in early 2015 and then goes before Senate. The proposal has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Communications. This committee reports on its findings in early March 2015.
A Canberra spokesperson for Parliamentary Secretary Paul Fletcher told IDG Education the administration is working on moving the legislation through Parliament during the first half of 2015.
The Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 bill proposes the creation of a new statutory office and a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. Details are available at the Cyber-Bullying web site.
This office enables a newly-appointed commissioner to administer a broad-based complaints handling scheme. This scheme encompasses the technology sector, social media site providers as well as individual mediation.
The search is already on for a candidate to fill the role of a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, the Canberra spokesperson said. A finalist is expected to be announced early next year.
This commissioner may be appointed “on an interim basis and get to work even if the legislation has not passed yet,” the spokesperson said. “Some impressive candidates have already come forward and a search process is underway.”
Two-tier content removal scheme
Once a cyber-bullying law is operational, technology companies will face fines of $17,000 each day if material targeting a child is not removed.
Individuals face legal action under existing criminal laws.
An effective complaints-handling system, backed by legislation, enables concerned groups or individuals to get harmful material taken down quickly from large social media sites, Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Fletcher, noted in an earlier statement.
He said the administration has earmarked $7.5 million under an online safety program to help schools develop and manage cyber-bullying programs.
The government’s reforms agenda is built around a two-tiered rapid removal scheme. Social media services grouped under the tier 1 category can participate on a “cooperative basis,” Fletcher said.
Once a complaint is investigated, a commissioner may request that a tier 1 social media service remove cyber-bullying material. But there is no legal obligation to comply.
However, the commissioner does have powers to revoke tier 1 status if a company repeatedly fails to remove offensive material. This follows on from requests to take down content over 12 months.
Social media companies tagged under the tier 2 category will be subject to legally binding notices or face the risk of civil penalties for non-compliance.
At the grassroots, the commissioner has powers to send out a notice to anyone that posts cyber-bullying material. This notice requires the recipient to take “all reasonable steps to remove the material, refrain from posting further material targeted at the child or apologise for posting the material.”
Failure to respond escalates the complaint, including going to court to seek an injunction or involve the police.
Earlier this year, the government commissioned research from a consortium of universities led by the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre.
The research found that the best estimate of the prevalence of cyber-bullying over a twelve month period is 20 per cent of Australians aged 8–17, with some studies putting that figure as low as 6 per cent and others as high as 40 percent.
A public discussion paper around cyber-bulling elicited 80 submissions from wide-ranging stakeholders. These included community organisations, industry, education bodies, government bodies, legal bodies, academics and individuals.
In the lead-up to the proposed legislation, architects of these reforms have worked with schools and child protection organisations through the Online Safety Working Group. This group has provided feedback to develop parameters around the Online Safety for Children Bill.
This feedback can be viewed at Feedback
Follow Shahida Sweeney on Twitter: @ShahidaSweeney