From the government that brought you the $100,000 picture of a red button, and the jolly trolling infographic that isn’t an infographic at all but just a poster, comes their latest blockbuster in the war against cyberbullying: “Cooperative Arrangement for Complaints Handling on Social Networking”. So how will this one go at the box office?

The mainstream press seems generally supportive of PM Julia Gillard’s message, presumably because it fits their framing of social media as a sewer full of anonymous bullies. The Daily Telegraph even used it to claim victory (again) in their “Stop the Trolls” campaign.

“When hate-filled cyber bullies drove TV identity Charlotte Dawson to the edge of despair we declared ‘enough is enough’,” the Tele‘s story led. Indeed. Kids, women escaping abusive relationships, gays, ethnics, all of those people being driven to the edge of despair they could live with, but good heavens not a TV identity.

Gillard singled out Twitter for criticism, and this also fits well with a long-running media narrative. “We need to see Twitter also agreeing to use these protocols and guidelines because it is on Twitter that so much of the damage has been done by trolls. And I do call on Twitter to replicate what has been done by other major social media companies, and embrace these guidelines,” she said.

But there’s no real evidence that Twitter is particularly prone to being used by trolls — the word “troll” now seemingly the lazy shorthand for anyone doing anything bad online. Nor is there any real evidence that Twitter is particularly reluctant to deal with complaints of violence and abuse.

The dig at Twitter seems premature. In response to a tweet from Gillard, Twitter’s head of global public policy Colin Crowell tweeted back “Thanks, we’re talking w/your team & our policies re abusive behavior are available to all here“.

If Twitter is “guilty” of anything, it’s of being the only major social network to actively fight attempts by governments to reveal the identity of its users. Twitter has fought the US in its Assange-related attempts to chase down online activists such as Melbourne-based Asher Wolf, for example, and fought to have secret requests made public. If Twitter caved in to such requests, then they’d be less able to resist logically-equivalent requests from governments in, say, Syria and Egypt.

But none of this addresses the questions we should really be asking. How will yesterday’s announcement improve the government’s reputation on cybersafety? And, less importantly, will the new guidelines make it safer for children and others online?

I’ve no idea why Gillard mentioned the cybersafety help button, because that has the potential to explode. By filing a freedom of information request through the new Right to Know website, Geordie Guy discovered that the $100,000 project had been rejected by Apple’s iTunes App Store because it was nothing more than a link to a website. As Guy wrote:

“The department [DBCDE] spent a small fortune (and to be fair, it was only a small one, but a fortune nonetheless) on something that was rejected because it produced functionality no different from just using your web browser.”

Yesterday’s announcement, replete with a meatspace backdrop of children dragged back to school during their holidays, looked like it was giving us something new. It followed the media narrative and reassured political tragics before parliament resumes parents before school resumes.

But was there really anything new?

The guidelines are just two pages long, and can be summed up in far less. Have a policy, complaint mechanism and review process. Remove child abuse material promptly. Nominate a government contact person. “Encourage” users to understand your site. Do awareness-raising and collaborate with the government’s efforts on same. Innovate. Report. Sign here.

It’s all motherhood stuff and, by and large, stuff that all the major social networks were doing already. Once any site grows big enough to be noticed, the social media expert gurus (SMEGs) lunge at it with their well-sharpened schtick about protecting the children and they’re soon brought into line with standard practice.

So it really doesn’t matter that only Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have signed up so far. They’re the ones internet-illiterate parents might have heard of, while the kids can continue to use Instagram or WhatsApp or plan SMS with caller ID turned off or notes in the locker when no one is looking.

Politicians generally don’t understand bullying, because they never encounter it in their own organisations. But child protection experts do understand it. Their message is simple. Prevention is better than cleaning up the mess afterwards, and prevention is about resilience — and that comes from education and confidence-building.

Crikey has yet to see the “online cyber safety module” developed by Life Education and McAfee that’ll be used by 600,000 students. That’s where we should be focusing our attention.

And on providing positive role models. So perhaps the media could help by providing models of behaviour other than ganging up to vote the unpopular off the island, hounding a closeted gay politician, or boning their own staff because they’re no longer rootable.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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