By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian regulator has sent legal letters to Twitter and Google telling them to hand over information about their efforts to stop online child abuse, drawing them into a crackdown that has already put pressure on other global tech firms.
The action by the country’s e-safety commissioner keeps a spotlight on the anti-exploitation practices at Twitter under the ownership of billionaire Elon Musk, who called child protection his top priority while also laying off more than half its employees since taking over last October.
“With Elon Musk declaring child sexual abuse a top priority, this is an opportunity for him to explain what he is indeed doing,” e-safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant told Reuters in an interview, referring to several of Musk’s tweets.
She said it was in Twitter’s interests to show that it was acting effectively to eradicate child sexual abuse material, otherwise advertisers could turn away from the company.
Inman Grant, who had served as a public policy director for Twitter until 2016, said the responses of larger tech firms, coupled with reports of looser content moderation at Twitter since Musk took over, prompted her to take action.
Twitter closed its Australian office after Musk’s buyout so there was no local representative to respond to Reuters, and a request for comment sent to the San Francisco-based company’s media email address was not immediately answered.
Apart from writing to Twitter, the commissioner also sent letters to Alphabet Inc’s Google, owner of YouTube and the file storage unit Google Drive, and China’s TikTok.
Google’s senior manager of government affairs and public policy Samantha Yorke said abuse material had no place on the company’s platforms and “we utilise a range of industry standard scanning techniques including hash-matching technology and artificial intelligence to identify and remove (child abuse material) that has been uploaded to our services”.
TikTok’s policy manager for Australia Jed Horner said in a statement the company had a zero-tolerance approach to dissemination of abuse material with more than 40,000 safety professionals globally “who develop and enforce our policies, and build processes and technologies to detect, remove or restrict violative content at scale”.
Under new laws in Australia, the e-safety commissioner, an office set up to protect internet users, can compel internet companies to give detailed information about the frequency of child exploitation on their platforms and about measures they take to stamp it out.
Companies that fail to cooperate face fines of up to A$700,000 ($478,000) per day.
Last year, the commissioner sent similar notices to Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp and Facebook owner Meta Platforms. After receiving their responses, the commissioner called their practices inadequate.
Inman Grant said a 2020 joint investigation with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection found widespread publicly-available abuse material on Twitter, which those authorities reported to Twitter’s head of trust and safety.
“When you compound that with Elon Musk coming here, eviscerating the trust and safety team, but also cutting the local public policy externally-facing folks, and then allowing some of the worst of the worst actors back on, you’re going to have a lot of bad actors, fewer guardrails,” she said, commenting on the job cuts at Twitter.
Although Twitter had effectively closed its Australian unit, Inman Grant said her office had extra-territorial powers to fine companies abroad, but she hoped the public attention would prompt Twitter to cooperate.
($1 = 1.4637 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)