And so, it appears, not all media regulation is an assault on free speech.
Tony Abbott this morning managed to dodge commenting on the “Aboriginal meme” Facebook page by invoking a Coalition taskforce that is looking at social media, including “stronger take down powers for the regulator”.
It’s only three days since Abbott, heroically swinging in to defend free speech, declared that any form of additional media regulation, or even merely encouraging the media to improve self-regulation, would become a “political correctness enforcement agency destined to suppress inconvenient truths and to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle Phillip Adams’ listeners”. Andrew Bolt would be dispatched to labour in the soy mines while David Marr would be allowed to roam free and offend conservative Christians.
Social media, on the other hand, well evidently that can take a little regulating from a political correctness enforcement agency.
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Abbott’s “social media taskforce” is presumably the review of online child safety established in January and chaired by Paul Fletcher, one of the Liberals’ many talents wasted on the backbench and given make-work jobs by Abbott. This was the Coalition’s alternative to Labor’s internet filter proposal, which remains in limbo. The review was supposed to report by the middle of the year but hasn’t been heard of since — rather like the government’s Cyber white paper, which was also promised for mid-year, but which remains, at last advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, “coming soon”.
Putting aside Abbott’s hypocrisy — unlimited free speech is vital for News Ltd but social media needs more regulation — the “Aboriginal meme” matter is located right in the centre of debate about media regulation. Facebook has a dodgy record on taking down pages. Last year it refused to take down a page of r-pe jokes for over a month despite a clear violation of its terms and conditions relating to hateful content. But it is very quick to take down pages the subject of copyright accusations and has a weird hang-up about breast-feeding mothers.
That it took some time to take down such profoundly offensive and hateful content as the garbage on the “Aboriginal meme” page, and first tried to insist it was “controversial humour”, is another example of its peculiar sensibilities.
Stephen Conroy struck the right note, saying he thought the page should be removed, but not insisting Facebook do it. Apart from anything else, Conroy has no power to insist media companies do anything except in relation to limited issues such as the anti-siphoning; it’s the role of ACMA to regulate media content, online and off.
The problem is, as Facebook has become part of a typical family’s media consumption, there’s a consumer expectation that it will be regulated like, and be as responsive to consumer concerns as, other key components of media consumption, like TV networks.
If you had a strong enough stomach to go through the page and look at the people “liking” its nauseating “jokes”, you’d be struck by the number of high school (and tertiary level) students. There’s a common assumption that under-25s prefer Facebook over Twitter, although there’s little data to back it up. In this case, plainly the page was circulated among groups of kids, some of whom were stupid enough to indicate public approval of it, something that, if the page hadn’t been removed, would have remained online and available to future employers and educators.
This is one of the issues that the Convergence Review grappled with. After apparently flirting with the idea of trying to regulate all forms of online content (the review final report insists that it didn’t, but the draft final report is fairly clear), it settled for moving from a broadcasting licence-based approach to regulation that reflected levels of influence, to one in which influence was central, regardless of delivery mechanism. The logic of this, fully extended, is that Facebook, or Apple, or Google, if sufficiently influential in Australia, would be regulated in a similar way to traditional media such as television. As it turned out, the review team’s assessment was that, using a metric of revenue, no one outside our major existing television, radio and newspaper groups was influential enough to warrant inclusion in the new regulatory framework.
The problem that Facebook, like Apple and Google and Twitter, is beyond Australian jurisdiction wasn’t addressed by the review team beyond that “there are legal and financial avenues as well as strong brand and market incentives” for foreign companies to comply. We’ll see about that.
The idea of governments deciding that they should have even greater powers to censor online material, via what Abbott would presumably call a political correctness enforcement agency, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Australia already has some remarkable restrictions on free speech, such as in relation to discussion of euthanasia and drug use. Our mainstream media gives itself the right to censor inconvenient political criticism on commercial grounds.
But Australians appear to have a growing expectation that the social media they and their kids commonly use will be regulated in some form like old media. Facebook, with its lack of responsiveness and idiosyncratic approach, hasn’t helped the anti-regulation cause in this instance.
Free speech advocates may need to resolve this tension if they’re to successfully fend off further restrictions from governments.