Tech titans forced to reveal number of underage users in bid to get a grip on social media’s impact on kids

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
Another layer of secrecy is being stripped from ruthless social media giants, who will now be forced to reveal how many of their active users are kids
Another layer of secrecy is being stripped from ruthless social media giants, who will now be forced to reveal how many of their active users are kids Credit: Supplied

Another layer of secrecy is being stripped from ruthless social media giants, who will now be forced to reveal the ages of active users so that the Government can get a grip on the impact these platforms are having on Australian kids.

On Thursday the Albanese Government announced sweeping reforms intended to boost transparency and accountability for digital platforms used by Australians including popular social media, messaging and gaming services.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said the government had amended the Basic Online Safety Expectations – which sets out the requirements for online service providers – to better address new and emerging online safety issues and help hold the tech industry accountable.

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Under the BOSE, online service providers, including social media platforms, are expected to take steps to protect Australians from unlawful and harmful material and activity that falls within the remit of the Online Safety Act, or jeopardises the online safety of Australians.

These strengthened powers will compel social media companies to ensure that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in the design and operation of any service likely to be accessed by children.

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Communications minister Michelle Rowland says Australia was examining how best to manage social media usage for children and teens. Credit: Mick Tsikas/AAPIMAGE

The new Determination will also require companies to provide – on request of the eSafety Commissioner – a report on the number of active end-users of services in Australia, broken down according to the number of users who are children or adults.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said that without information on users’ ages, the Government was “flying blind”.

Ms Inman Grant said these strengthened powers meant her office would now be able to find out “precisely how many children are on specific services”.

“This needs to be a starting point of understanding how many under-aged users are on these platforms today – otherwise, governments are flying blind,” she said.

“If we’re serious about effectively managing the ages and stages at which a child can partake in social media, we need to move forward with all technology companies deploying effective age-assurance systems.”

Ms Inman Grant said that in order to make the internet safer for all Australians “we must know the breadth and scale of the problems we’re up against”.

“We can only do that if we can compel transparency from a technology industry that is becoming increasingly opaque,” she said.

“These welcome changes … will help us to continue shining a light on specific steps companies are, and are not, taking to protect Australians from fast-moving, rapidly evolving online harms.”

National eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant speaks to the media during a press conference following a roundtable on ways to make online dating safer, in Sydney, Wednesday, January 25, 2023. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING
National eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant. Credit: Bianca De Marchi/AAPIMAGE

Under the Online Safety Act, the eSafety Commissioner is empowered to seek information from online services to understand how they are complying with the BOSE Determination.

Failure to comply with an eSafety request for information can result in fines and civil court action.

“Ensuring that digital platforms are more transparent and accountable to their Australian users is a key tool to improve safety online,” said Ms Rowland.

“What we know is that the online environment has changed and will continue to change – which is why we’re taking action now to ensure we address current and emerging harms.

“The amended BOSE Determination will provide eSafety with a clear and up to date remit in exercising its transparency powers and send a clear message to online platforms about their obligations to keep Australians safe online.”

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