Parents, educators and the law have struggled with the widespread use of internet communications by children and teenagers. Consistent reports of children’s self-harm promote moral panic that causes a reactionary, but slow acting, formation of policies and an increase in punitive laws. In September 2013, the Federal Coalition released their policy on internet safety, titled The Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children, which criticised the Australian Labor Party’s restrictive and failed filter proposal. The Coalition proposed the replacement of the filtering system with a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner as a single point of contact for online safety issues. To be clear, rather than just being a complaint channel, it is intended that the Commissioner be a point of action with powers to remove harmful material quicker which has been lacking in previous government policies.
My opinion is that despite formidable challenges, such as the hosting of internet content in other countries, these are workable policies to ensure the online safety of children and teenagers. The idea is that the Commissioner will be responsible for coordinating the removal of online content and messages, as well as facilitating the engagement of governments, families and content providers on these issues. This means negotiating with internet sites that expose children and teenagers to harmful and bullying content, especially YouTube, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Children and teenage self-harm resulting from cyberbullying became a significant election issue in 2013. In the context of the Coalition’s documents on this topic, cyberbullying is defined as an intentional act carried out by individuals and groups against others repeatedly and over a period of time. Much of this takes place in the social network platforms. These platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, long absolved themselves of responsibility for user actions, arguing that their sites are just platforms for opinion sharing. However, it is untrue that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter did not respond with policies and punishments to address cyberbullying.
Nevertheless, the problem is that children are not going to turn off their computers and smart phones and ignore those who bully them. Cyberbullying is a serious and credible issue that needs a regulatory body with the power to strategically enforce laws as well as monitor and coordinate quick responses to complaints.
In response to criticisms that the Commissioner’s office is merely a bureaucratic exercise, there is no doubt that there is a risk of a department created by any government becoming ineffective. But I argue that its centrality and, hopefully, its responsible exercise of powers, can be effective assets in minimising, though not eliminating, harmful online content and bullying. Others have argued that the creation of a Commonwealth Commissioner will restrict online freedom and bring undue censorship. Indeed, Bernard Keane from the online media site, Crikey, argues that the Commissioner may become a censor of internet material, However, I believe that the policy is not about denying adults the freedom to read online what they wish. On the contrary, the Coalition’s establishment of this role is likely to create a channel for redressing the many cases of internet misuse against children.
I argue that the Coalition’s policies on internet safety are workable based on three elements. Firstly, the role of the e-Safety Commissioner is one of national co-ordination of online safety. This is an important function because the States alone cannot fund or allocate sufficient resources for separate bodies, let alone attempt to work with other States that have their own commissions.
Secondly, a complaints system supported by legislation that has the ability to remove harmful content from social media sites will exist. Although Facebook, Twitter and other sites have responded to calls to take down bullying or harmful content, the frustration for individuals who want this done is that the material often remains online despite their requests. Having a channel to directly deal with these sites, with legislation to support the enforcement of removal, gives parents an avenue to have content forcefully removed that they believe is harmful to their child.
Thirdly, it is a policy to encourage Internet Service Providers and mobile phone companies to provide blocking and filtering software. However, this may not be an effective strategy against cyberbullying and harmful content as the provision will be optional. This means the policy encourages a degree of choice and self-responsibility, which is not likely to encourage or enforce people to use such software. Rather, it means it is clearly understood that such software is offered at the point-of-sale rather than having to be sought at a later time. To make this policy more effective, I suggest that blocking and filtering software should be a compulsory part of purchasing internet and mobile phone plans.
There are potential challenges to the effective implementation of the policy, such the difficulties of site content being hosted overseas and the speed at which large volumes of complaints can be dealt with. Critics will also see it as a platform for a government to increase and enforce censorship as a result of the Commissioner’s powers of enforcement. Creating an official office does run a risk of being seen as ineffective as it struggles to keep pace with the increase in internet use and its rapid changes. These are valid concerns that should be discussed.
Children value the opinions of their peers; cyberbullying from peers is harmful to them. There is no easy solution for them or their parents to totally stop cyberbullying. Therefore, despite the formidable and complex challenges the Coalition’s policies on e-safety will present when implemented, they are workable and effective in helping to protect children and teenagers from cyberbullying. They are mechanisms and options. They are not about removing the choices adults have to view online material. They will provide tangible and realistic measures that the previous government was not able to address, which strive to make children and teenagers safer in a sea of potential threats to their physical and emotional well-being.