The government is preparing yet another inquiry into big tech, this time in the form of a committee on social media and online safety.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the inquiry on Wednesday, saying big tech “has big questions to answer”.
“Mums and dads are rightly concerned about whether big tech is doing enough to keep their kids safe online,” he said.
“Big tech created these platforms, they have a responsibility to ensure their users are safe.”
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, David Coleman, framed the latest inquiry as being about helping the mental health of young people.
“In Australia, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a consistent increase in signs of distress and mental ill-health among young people. While the reasons for this are varied and complex, we know that social media is part of the problem,” Coleman said.
“Young people have told us this themselves. In a 2018 Headspace survey of over 4,000 young people aged 12 to 25, social media was nominated as the main reason youth mental health is getting worse.
“And the recent leak of Facebook’s own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people.”
Standing up to big tech
Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland criticised the government for taking actions she said should have been done long ago.
“The online environment is fast moving, so we do need to be ever-vigilant, but governments need to move swiftly as well,” Rowland said.
“It is most unfortunate, therefore, that the Morrison government has run late on everything from legislating a new online safety act, to reforming online privacy law, to improving digital media literacy and now to initiating this inquiry into online harms in the last sitting days of this year.
“It is late, late, late.”
During a press conference on Wednesday about the inquiry, a journalist asked the prime minister what an inquiry could possibly hope to learn given the accounts of whistleblowers and committee hearings that explicitly target social media companies.
“This is an issue burned in our hearts and in our actions over the course of our government,” he said. “And we have stood up to the biggest companies in the world.”
Just two weeks ago, Morrison stood alongside Google's Australian managing director Mel Silva to promote the “major benefits” of the tech giant expanding its local operations.
The parliamentary inquiry into social media will be chaired by NSW MP Lucy Wicks and will begin hearings this month before passing on its findings in February 2022.
Former AFL footballer Adam Goodes, WAFL player Tayla Harris, and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen – who Coleman alluded to in his comments accompanying the announcement – are among those expected to be invited to speak to the committee.
WAFL star Harris was the subject of vile and misogynistic comments online after 7 News posted an iconic photo of her kicking a goal to social media.
Goodes sadly ended his decorated AFL career early because of ongoing racial vilification and booing at his matches – a disgraceful period in Australian sport that was exacerbated in no small part by traditional media organisations.
Haugen was in the spotlight throughout October after she came forward as the former Facebook staffer who was strategically leaking the company’s internal documents to news outlets.
Evidence she provided has helped illustrate the extents to which Meta, Facebook’s new parent company, has regularly pursued higher profits at the expense of social cohesion and mental health.
Legislate first, ask questions later
Strangely, the parliamentary inquiry into social media is coming well after the government began a legislative agenda to tighten its control of what can be said by whom online.
First came the Online Safety Bill – passed in March this year – which gave the eSafety Commissioner powers to direct internet companies to remove offensive or abusive content from social media platforms and other services they may host.
That piece of legislation was given a short public consultation period during which it was criticised for, among other things, unnecessarily targeting direct messages; fundamentally misunderstanding the role of cloud infrastructure; inappropriately using existing the classification scheme beyond its original scope; and a lack of robust legal processes surrounding the powers.
More recently – days before announcing the social media inquiry – the government said it was preparing legislation that would effectively allow private citizens to unmask anonymous internet users.
The so-called ‘anti-trolling laws’ would see the creation of a new court order compelling social media companies to disclose any identifying information about users in the event of a defamation lawsuit.
Digital rights advocates criticised the proposed laws as being an attack on free speech and the right to privacy, suggesting they also fail to adequately address the government’s stated aim of creating a ‘safe’ online environment by instead giving more power to people who can afford to launch defamation actions against internet users.