| | | Effective PR

Australia looks for ways to curb social media abuse

Editorial Staff

After half-a-a decade of widespread criticism of China for the controls it has placed on the use of the internet including access to material that, in the opinion of the Chinese government, undermines the authority of the government and courts, Australia is wondering how to achieve the same result without incurring the ire of millions and the ridicule of the global community.

If Facebook, et al, think they can operate in a world without borders, Australia has a thing or two to say about that.

The Attorney-General for the state of Victoria, Robert Clark, is so angered by Facebook's refusal to remove pages that he says prejudices the chance of a fair trial that he convened a meeting of his state and national counterparts. The purpose is to examine options for a set of "national protocols" under which national and state enforcement agencies contact social media sites to "request " that offending pages be removed.

The situation is not new: in Germany it has long been settled law that operators of websites are responsible for the content that appears on them although the principle has been widely eroded. Recently, Malaysia has been the subject of criticism for enacting a law with similar effect. And, of course, China's censorship of the 'net has long been a cause of criticism along with many middle eastern governments and other regimes.

In a not-too-thinly veiled warning, Clark told Facebook via a radio programme in Australia "There are procedures between different jurisdictions for the execution and enforcement of court orders ... but let's hope it doesn't come to that," according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

First, though, he will need to establish where, under Australian law, the offending pages are "published." There is no common position - some say they are published on the user's device and some on the server where the page is hosted. US law generally takes the latter position and it is this that many large companies use to defend actions: we are American, they say, and the rest of the world can ........

You get the picture.

But increasingly, that is not being accepted. The poster's location is increasingly being regarded as one place of publication. Therefore, the poster is at risk. That means getting information out of a social media publisher and, again, US corporations usually respond with a short and bordering on the rude rejection for such information.

In Singapore, a woman who posted in her Facebook account criticisms of a specific form of wedding in the common parts of a public housing development has been fired by her employer because some people found the comments racially offensive. Certainly, they were more than somewhat ill advised, if graphics that purport to be screen grabs of them are true copies. Earlier this year, two men were arrested (but not, it seems, charged) after allegations that their postings were racially offensive. Singapore media reports that, at the time, a police statement said " that anyone who re-posts or makes offensive comments on the racist posts, and is found to have committed an offence, "will be dealt with in accordance with the law"."

The ultimate sanction for the Australian authorities is simply to block access to Facebook from within Australia. Indeed, as has been seen with companies such as Google and Yahoo! in their dealings with China, that is a powerful weapon.

Google, in the UK, however, saw the UK courts cave in and broadly accept that it can do as it likes in relation to intellectual property, only becoming agitated when issues of personal security came up.

That is the battleground that the Australians have yet to link into their complaint.As the EU has compelled Facebook to modify its practices for European users, Australia can adopt the same approach.

And while it is doing so, it should do as Ireland did and undertake a fundamental review of how FB (and other) media operate with regard to its laws and the protection of its people. Facebook is the equivalent of an aircraft carrier sitting off the coast of a country: big and threatening. Mere sabre-rattling is not enough.

If Australia is serious, it needs to do as the Chinese and other governments have done and to call in a serious strike on that threat to ensure that it is neutralised.

If it doesn't, then history shows that nothing will happen and that the juggernaut that is FB - and other social media sites operated from outside the jurisdiction - will steamroller national laws, interests and, as shown in this case, justice.

And that's just too important to allow.