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Australia’s eSafety commissioner calls for online “guard rails”

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When the Davos-based World Economic Forum (WEF) isn’t trying to figure out ways of reinventing the world and society in a “great reset,” the organization pays attention to some other favorite talking points among a certain class of politicians and ideologues.

One of those is certainly the idea of “harmful” online content, and assigning what critics and digital rights groups often denounce as unjustified focus on the concept, while using fearmongering to position powerful tech companies and/or governments around the world as censors and gatekeepers of access to the internet.

Earlier in the week, WEF organized an online panel dedicated precisely to countering harmful content, that saw Mina Al-Oraibi, Julie Inman Grant, Simon Milner, Lene Wendland, and Cathy Li take part.

In announcing it, WEF said that tech platforms are these days being “used and abused as arbiters of truth” just when life, including civil liberties, is moving more and more online, and wanted panelist to consider how governments and businesses can come up with policies that will be more effective when it comes to both “content accountability and transparency.”

Australia’s eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant, who previously spent decades working for Microsoft, Adobe, and Twitter, and is a former US Congress staffer, chose to address the subject with an analogy to roads: “We believe that the platforms build the digital roads, they also need to erect the digital guard rails, and be applying the virtual seat belts.”

At the same time, she rejected the notion that Australia’s eSafety authority – that allows people to report what they see as harmful, or offensive content – is actually policing the internet for harmful content, revealing that they prefer to rely on citizens effectively “snitching” on one another and reporting each other to tech platforms, which are then expected to remove whatever’s defined as harmful.

If that fails to materialize, then citizens should turn to authorities to take care of censoring this material – but Grant reiterated that the government would rather not assume the role of the principal moderator of online content.

Grant also noted that during the past year of the pandemic, the internet became “an essential utility” and that the circumstances had created a perfect storm that included a rise in “all forms of abuse.”

As for end-to-end encryption, these were her thoughts: “How do you take down content when there’s no owner? We need to think more actively about what are the unintended consequences.”

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