22 January 2014

e-Safety Commissioner

The Australian Government has released a discussion paper [PDF] regarding a Enhancing Online Safety for Children: Public consultation on Key Election Commitments as part of the 'Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children' that encompasses establishment of a Children's e-Safety Commissioner, development of "an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get harmful material down fast from large social media sites" and examination of "existing Commonwealth legislation to determine whether to create a new, simplified cyber-bullying offence".

The document is probable because it under-recognises the resilience of children (not all of whom are wrapped in cotton wool), fails to recognise concerns regarding treatment of all "cyberbullying" as equally serious, and sidesteps any evaluation of the effectiveness of existing programs. Such an evaluation would be useful, given questions about the effectiveness of particular initiatives over the past decade, especially those that were inspired to appease certain constituencies.

The paper follows calls in the Victorian Law Reform Committee report on sexting noted here.

In discussing the mooted e-Safety body the paper states that
As part of the election campaign in September 2013, the Government committed to appoint a senior Commonwealth official as a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner (the Commissioner), supported by existing resources re allocated from existing locations within the public service. The Commissioner will be a single point of contact for online safety issues for industry, Australian children and those charged with their welfare. The Commissioner will also take the lead across government in implementing policies to improve the safety of children online. The need for an accessible and centralised point of contact to deal with online safety has been recognised by policy makers in a range of contexts. For example, on 5 November 2013 the New Zealand Government introduced the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which proposed the appointment of an Approved Agency under a new civil enforcement regime to handle complaints about harmful digital communications and assist in dispute resolution. The Victorian Law Reform Committee also recommended the establishment of a Digital Communications Tribunal.
Functions of the Commissioner
The Government’s election policy commitments indicate that the Commissioner will have responsibility for the following:
  • implementing the proposed scheme for the rapid removal of material that is harmful to a child from large social media sites; 
  • working with industry to ensure that better options for smartphones and other devices and internet access services are available for parents to protect children from harmful content; 
  • establishing an advice platform with guidelines for parents about the appropriateness of media content; 
  • establishing a research fund to consider the effects of internet use on children, how support services can be provided online and how to mitigate children’s online risks; 
  • establishing a voluntary process for the certification of online safety programmes offered within schools; and 
  • establishing a funding programme for schools to deliver online safety education.
In addition to the functions outlined above, there are a range of existing Australian Government online safety resources and programmes which could be transferred to the Commissioner’s control. ... 
The clear policy intent of the Government is to have a single organisation which takes the lead in relation to online safety for children, allowing for greater efficiency and addressing duplication and overlap. There may, however, be some offsetting considerations in weighing up which programmes should be transferred to the Commissioner’s control. For instance, while some resources and research projects specifically target online safety for children (such as the Cybersafety Help Button and Australian Children’s Cybersafety and E-security Project), other resources are intended for improving the online safety of people of all ages and therefore may not be suited to a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. For example, the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) ThinkUKnow programme involves the delivery of public safety messages to students, teachers and parents, which are bolstered by the law enforcement role that the AFP has within the community. The ‘Report Abuse’ function of the ThinkUKnow programme is used to report online grooming behaviour. Consideration should be given to whether the ‘Report Abuse’ function should also remain with a law enforcement body. 
In cases where any agencies retain their online safety programmes, the Commissioner would be expected to establish strong working relationships to ensure consistent messaging in online safety initiatives, and to avoid duplication with the delivery of other online safety programmes.
They would say that, wouldn't they … cooperation in a positive and forward looking way, no duplication, happy surrender of resources (at a time of ongoing budget cuts) "re allocated" from "existing locations".

The next page features the usual motherhood statements -
A range of options are available for establishing the Commissioner. Best practice principles for establishing a new government position are outlined in the Governance Arrangements for Australian Government Bodies published by the Department of Finance, which include some of the following key principles:
  • There should be no unnecessary proliferation of government bodies, therefore a new function, activity or power should be conferred on an existing body, unless there is a persuasive case to form a new body. 
  • Existing governance structures allow for well-understood lines of responsibility to operate, including the clear application of other accountability laws and processes. 
  • A departmental status works well for functions of government that require close ministerial involvement, direction and responsibility. 
  • Additional set-up and ongoing administrative costs for the body should be minimised to reduce demands placed on public sector resources. 
  • A balance needs to be struck between establishing a body’s independence while at the same time still enabling government to govern efficiently.
It is a key objective that the Commissioner will maintain a high public profile to provide visible leadership on enhancing online safety for children.
Visible leadership is especially important in the lead-up to an election and the annual budget wars between competing agencies.

The paper identifies four options for creation of the Commissioner -
1 – establishment of an independent statutory authority 
This option would see the creation of a new independent statutory authority, separately staffed and resourced to support the Commissioner and its functions. While this option would provide the greatest level of independence for the Commissioner to carry out his/her functions, it is also the most costly option. 
2 – establishment of an independent statutory office, with administrative support from an existing government agency 
This option would establish a Commissioner as an independent office, and provide that office with administrative support from an existing government agency (an approach recently taken by the Australian Energy Regulator, which was established as an independent Statutory Board with administrative resources sourced from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Administrative support could be provided by the ACMA, with relevant existing ACMA powers delegated and resources transferred to the Commissioner. Alternatively, administrative support could be provided by the Department of Communications. This would provide some synergies in policy development activities between the Commissioner and the Department, but may give the impression that the Commissioner is not sufficiently independent from government. 
3 – designation of a Member of the ACMA as the Commissioner 
This option would involve appointing an existing member of the ACMA Board to be the Commissioner, with legislative amendments to the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 to permanently place the role of the Commissioner within the ACMA Board, with distinct functions and powers to achieve the Commissioner’s intended purpose. One benefit of this approach is that it would be possible to temporarily appoint an ACMA Member to act as the Commissioner while legislative arrangements are established for the permanent Commissioner and his/her functions (including legislation for the proposed scheme for rapid removal of material that is harmful to a child from social media sites – see Chapter 2). Having interim arrangements would enable a more rapid transition to the new arrangements, as the interim Commissioner could be closely involved in setting up the legislative arrangements for the new Commissioner. A variant of this option would see the appointment of an Associate Member of the ACMA as the Commissioner, with distinct functions and powers to achieve the Commissioner’s intended purpose. An advantage of this variant is that the appointment could be made without legislative amendment to the ACMA Act. 
4 – designation of a non-government organisation with expertise in online child safety 
This option would involve establishing a legislated framework for appointing an expert non-government organisation (NGO) to undertake the role of the Commissioner. The NGO would be selected on a competitive basis and would operate under contractual arrangements with government. The contract would set out the quantity and quality of outputs the selected NGO would deliver. This option is similar to an approach being proposed in New Zealand under the new Harmful Digital Communications Bill. The key advantage of this option would be the greater flexibility that NGOs have in terms of their:
  • operating cost structure; 
  • capacity to work with industry, including generating additional income; and 
  • capacity to work with state and territory agencies, including law enforcement and education agencies.
A potential disadvantage may be limits on the range of ‘enforcement’ functions that an NGO is allowed to take on. This may require the selected NGO to work closely with local police.