Coalition outlines plan to pressure internet giants over cyberbullying

Amy Remeikis
Photograph: Science Photo Library/Alamy

The Morrison government is putting internet giants on notice about cyberbullying, outlining a plan to tackle the problem in a new cyber safety consultation paper released by the communications minister.

Cyber safety was one of the only fully formed policies Scott Morrison put forward during the May election campaign, with Paul Fletcher left to implement the proposal.

In a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, seen by Guardian Australia, Fletcher will explain how the proposed online safety act will install “tools to recognise and guard” against negative online interactions, ensure harmful material is taken down more quickly and deprive terrorists of key recruitment tools.

“Industry needs to step up and take more responsibility,” Fletcher is to say in his speech. “We need smart new approaches to getting harmful content down when fringe gore sites want it glorified.”

The government plans to open up the online safety act to public consultation on Wednesday, shortly after Fletcher delivers his speech. The act is designed to cut down on what it describes as “online harm” and put pressure on internet giants to take responsibility for the content on their platforms.

Related: One in five Australian children are victims of cyberbullying, e-safety commissioner says

“There continues to be a significant disconnect between the expectations of Australians and what is delivered by the internet industry today,” Fletcher will say. “A key manifestation of that disconnect is that many of today’s most popular digital products and services have not been designed with user safety in mind.

“That needs to change. We need to get to a point where our online highways benefit from the same rigorous approach to safety we see in the global automotive market – where international standards, enforced by legislation made by sovereign nations, are met by global manufacturers as they supply their vehicles to global markets.”

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on a Christchurch mosque, New Zealand sought global assistance in stamping out extremist content – a move Australia pledged almost immediate support for after the Australian accused of carrying out the attacks was able to live stream the acts.

Under the proposed act, internet platforms would have half the time – 24 hours rather than 48 hours – to take down harmful content. That could refer to cyberbullying, harassment or revenge porn.

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“Today, while the eSafety commissioner can issue a notice to the overseas host to remove the content, if the website ignores the notice there is little more the commissioner can do,” Fletcher is to say.

“Under the proposed new act, the eSafety commissioner could issue a notice to Google and Bing to request that the link to the offending page be de-ranked in search results.”

Any changes will be months away. The bill is open for consultation for 10 weeks, with the government to review any submissions before Fletcher presents a final draft to parliament.

It aims to bring together Australia’s online safety regulatory requirements under a single act. But while it concentrates on harmful or bullying material online, the government still remains hamstrung over what it can do to counter false or misleading material hosted on internet platforms such as Facebook.

The discussion paper recommends a cyber abuse scheme to “facilitate the removal of serious online abuse and harassment and introduce a new end-user take down and civil penalty regime”, as well as work with search engines to “de-list offending content”.

The government also wants to empower the eSafety commissioner with the ability to “mandate transparency reporting by the digital platforms”, which includes introducing new, basic online safety expectations “to be proactively met by service providers”.

That would include more stringent complaint and reporting mechanisms, although at this stage, there is no detail on how the government would force international multinationals to adhere to its laws.