Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says the time has come to regulate social media giants, after watching an ex-Facebook employee highlight the dangers of the platform before the US Senate.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says the government is prepared to regulate social media
He says his desire to regulate the sector is linked to his experience as a parent
The comments come after the Prime Minister labelled social media a “coward’s palace”
The company has been under scrutiny this week after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked tens of thousands of documents showing it withheld research into the harms of its products.
In Australia, the government is preparing to regulate social media, according to Mr Joyce.
“The motivation is now there at the federal level in Australia, at the highest level in the United States, in other corners of the globe, to say: ‘we’ve had enough, you can’t treat us like fools. You think we’re joking, we’re not’,” Mr Joyce told the ABC’s PM program.
“This time, something’s going to happen,”
Mr Joyce said legislation to curtail the power of social media giants would be put on the table “soon.”
“It’s rare when a prime minister and a deputy prime minister in basically an unscripted way both have the same messages on virtually the same day and so the impetus is there,” he said.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged changes to social media laws in Australia.
“Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can go on there, not say who they are, and destroy people’s lives,” he said.
It’s personal for Joyce
Mr Joyce said passion on the subject of social media comes from his experience as a parent and he expressed anger over rumours about his eldest daughter that had spread on social media.
“[I’m acting] on behalf of every parent, of every mother, of every person who’s had to deal with a daughter who’s been intimidated, bullied, basically psychologically kicked to pieces by marauding and uncontrolled forces on the internet,” he said.
Mr Joyce added if social media companies were smart enough to make billions, they were smart enough to make their products safer.
“We spend billions of dollars in Australia on mental health issues — Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms make billions of dollars profit from selling a product that I believe in many instances, if it was a food product it would be taken off the shelf.”
Snapchat takes action
Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only social media giants facing scandals and pressure to reform.
Snapchat, the app in which messages and videos self-destruct, has faced significant pressure to curb the sale of illicit drugs on the platform.
In some cases, prescription and party drugs have contained counterfeit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times more potent than heroin.
Snapchat on Friday boosted its efforts to root out drug dealers using the app.
The company launched a new in-app education portal called Heads Up that distributes content from expert organisations. It has also rolled out a new filter that warns teens about the dangers of fentanyl.
Snapchat will dedicate an episode of its news show Good Luck America to being about fentanyl.
The deputy prime minister said it was too little, too late.
“It’s fluffy prevarication,” Mr Joyce said.
“These people have been the beneficiary of the product they stand behind, and for them to come out now and say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that was a problem with it and we’re looking into it — It’s insulting.”
A spokesperson for Snapchat did acknowledge there was a problem with illicit drugs sold on the platform and said the company had moved to address it.
Unlike Facebook, which commissioned research into potential harm the platform was causing and kept it secret, Snapchat has been transparent with its research.
The company commissioned a study by Morning Consult, that looked at 13-24 year olds’ awareness of fentanyl, and why they were buying prescription pills.
Public health professionals have welcomed Snapchat’s initiatives.
Monica Barratt from RMIT University is an expert on the intersection of drugs and technology and said social channels should not only partner with drug prevention type organisations for public awareness announcements, but also harm reduction agencies.
“I think it’s excellent that they’ve backed that by some commissioned research there, so they can see that there is actually an awareness gap,” she said.
“On the one hand, they should look at preventing this, but also, on the other hand, they could focus on safer use strategies. What to do if someone overdoses, how to access naloxone, which is available to reverse an opioid overdose dose.
“It can definitely save lives in this space.”
Can Big Tech really be regulated?
Chris Cooper, the executive director of Reset Australia, a think tank that looks at policy solutions for regulating big tech, said Australian politicians should be encouraged by bipartisan support between Republicans and Democrats to create change in the US.
“It’s important for us to build on these moments and for our politicians to feel buoyed by this, this week and have the added confidence they now have that clearly there’s a need to regulate and there’s obviously appetite from the public for that too,” he said.
Mr Cooper said Reset Australia and whistleblower Frances Haugen were both calling for more transparency around the way social media platforms control algorithms to shape the content Australians consume.
“We’ve called for transparency around COVID misinformation. Very simple legislation that could better inform the communication outreach around our vaccine rollout,” Mr Cooper said.
He said Australia needed to introduce legislation to protect young people, for example introducing a Children’s Data Code, which would be similar to legislation introduced in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“This in practice means the maximum level of privacy protection. It means not recommending 40-year-olds as friends to 16-year-olds,” he said.
“It means ensuring that young people’s data is protected and managed well and that young people have the ability to request the deletion of their profiles and for that to be simple and straightforward.”