Home Affairs singles out Meta as most reluctant to stop online abuse

Jene J. Long
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The Department of Home Affairs has called for more oversight on social media algorithms and online platforms using encryption as being a potential mechanism for preventing online abuse.

Those calls were made by Home Affairs representatives on Tuesday afternoon when they appeared before the Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety. The committee is currently undertaking a social media probe into the practices of major technology companies to curb toxic online behaviour.

The committee’s probe was approved by the federal government at the end of last year with the intention of building on the proposed social media legislation to “unmask trolls”.

Home Affairs digital and technology policy head Brendan Dowling on Tuesday said his department has become increasingly concerned about the rollout of encryption on online platforms. In expressing these concerns, Dowling said his department was not anti-encryption and acknowledged the cybersecurity and privacy benefits of the technology, but noted the rollout of encryption on online platforms has not been done with the intention of prioritising the safety of users.

“I think we’re seeing platforms adopt the idea of safety by design, but that continues to be a concern where safety seems to be an after feature or an afterthought to the design of platforms,” Dowling told the committee.

“One of our most real and immediate concerns is that encryption is being rolled out without the associated consideration of safety features. To use an example, there are mechanisms to ensure that you can identify known child abuse material in any encrypted environment.

“There are technical ways to achieve the identification of that deeply troubling material, but what we’re seeing is platforms are looking to roll out further encryption to deal with privacy issues or security issues without regard to how they’re going to prioritise public safety, child safety, and assistance to law enforcement in those environments so that’s one example of where we see the innovation being ahead of the safety considerations.”

In Home Affair’s submission to the committee, the department specifically called out Meta as being “frequently the most reluctant to work with government” when it comes to promoting a safe online environment, adopting a safety-by-design approach, and taking adequate proactive measures to prevent online harms.

“Digital platforms continue to be manipulated by malicious actors, and those seeking to do harm are able to exploit their technologies faster than industry can develop new safety features,” Home Affairs wrote in its submission.

Home Affair’s remarks are in stark contrast to the ones made by Meta when it appeared before the same committee a fortnight ago, when the company’s ANZ policy director Mia Garlick dismissed the claims made by whistleblower Frances Haugen that company prioritises profit over safety as being “categorically not true”.

“Safety is at the core of our business,” Garlick said at the time.

The committee’s findings for its social media probe are set to be released later this month.

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