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Government to appoint e-Safety Commissioner to target cyber-bullying

Measures to crack down on cyber-bullying and protect minors online have received bipartisan support, meaning social networks could soon be required to remove bullying material from their sites.

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Image by Lars Plougmann, CC BY-SA 2.0

Social networks could soon be required to take down "cyber-bullying" material posted to their websites within 48 hours under new laws that have just scored bipartisan approval.

The Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, announced in December last year, was put forward to introduce stricter safeguards for children on the internet, and to introduce measures to protect minors from online bullying. The bill also establishes a Children's e-Safety Commissioner to "to take a national leadership role in online safety for children."

The legislation is yet to pass the lower house, but Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher said this move was "not contentious and is expected to occur over coming days," meaning the bill is soon expected to become law.

The most significant measure introduced is a new complaints system that will be backed by the legislation, granting powers "to get harmful cyber-bullying material down fast from large social media services".

According to the bill, cyber-bulling material is defined as anything shared via social media or digital communication that is deemed to be "seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing or seriously humiliating."

The "rapid removal" measure will be based on a tiered system, allowing requests to remove material to be sent to certain social networks, while others will be required to remove material with penalties for failing to do so. When a notice is issued, social networks will be required to remove material within 48 hours, and could face fines of up to AU$17,000 for not acting.

The e-Safety Commissioner will also be required to stay across how minors use the internet, with Fletcher saying that teenagers "may use swear words or language that is considered derogatory" online but that "minor, trivial or frivolous in nature is not cyber bullying".

Citing statistics that one in five children between the ages of 8 and 17 are exposed to cyber-bulling, Paul Fletcher said passage of the legislation was a major step.

"It is very pleasing to see the bipartisan support for this Bill -- which in turn reflects the message that politicians across the spectrum are hearing from Australia's parents, children and teachers about the importance of keeping children safe online -- and doing more to protect children against the threat of cyberbullying."

Facebook has responded by pointing to comments from AIMIA, the Digital Industry Association of Australia, saying it will work with the Government on the issue:

The digital industry shares the Government's concern to promote the safety and well-being of all Australians particularly young Australians. This is why we have policies that prohibit bullying and invest heavily in reporting tools and infrastructure to promptly remove bullying content. We anticipate working with the new e-Safety Commissioner to promote online safety as part of our ongoing outreach and collaboration with a wide range of Australian child safety organisations, educators, parents and young people.

For its part, Twitter's Director of Public Policy for Australia, Julie Inman-Grant, said online safety was a key priority for the social network.

We are dedicated to the protection of our users and worked with the Government to help shape the best possible outcomes that are achievable and will help us reach our collective goals of keeping young Australians safe online. At Twitter, we have made our own advancements in recent months on our safety tools and increased our education and awareness efforts on the Twitter rules and tools to help our users have a positive experience on the platform.

The Government is set to appoint the Children's e-Safety Commissioner in the coming weeks, with the complaints and removal system expected to come into force over the course of this year.

Updated at 2:40 p.m. AEDT: Included comments from AIMIA.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. AEDT: Included comments from Twitter.