Home Australia’s online safety regulator retreats on child abuse detection rules

Australia’s online safety regulator retreats on child abuse detection rules


  • Australia's eSafety Commissioner revised rules for big tech to combat child abuse and terror content.
  • Tech firms warned these measures could lead to mass government surveillance and weaken encryption.
  • Final standards exclude breaking encryption and only mandate feasible and reasonable actions by companies.

Australia’s independent regulator for online safety has made concessions on new rules to force big tech firms to take stronger action to detect child abuse and terror content. 

Some of the nation’s top tech companies hit back with a warning of the potential for mass government surveillance if they were compelled to take action on problem content on encrypted messaging and cloud storage services. 

Led by Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner is a government agency “committed to keeping its citizens safer online”. The statutory body has regulatory powers relating to cyberbullying, image-based abuse, and illegal and harmful online content. 

Back in November, eSafety set out a raft of draft standards that appeared set to rein in the operators of cloud and messaging services, such as Apple, Proton, and Signal, compelling them to detect and remove specified content “where technically feasible”, and to make it difficult for such material to reappear. 

However, the tech firms were unhappy as there was no understanding or agreed process for how they were expected to comply with the rules. In a related discussion paper, the agency stated it “does not advocate building in weaknesses or back doors to undermine privacy and security on end-to-end encrypted services”.

Due to the ambiguity with the regulations and other material like the paper referenced above, the tech companies raised the alarm that end-to-end encryption would not be protected, with Apple stressing everyone’s online communications could be left open to mass surveillance. The “technical feasibility” was a term considered too loose and unspecified, to the extent that companies were concerned if it would be financially possible to cover and implement. This went beyond encryption fears and has proved to be the point of retreat for the eSafety Commissioner.

Failure to protect children from abuse

In parliament on Friday, papers were submitted setting out the finalized online safety standards with the omission of a requirement to break encryption and the companies will not be forced to take action not technically feasible or practically reasonable.

Inman Grant took a thinly veiled swipe at criticism of the proposals in an op-ed in The Australian, hitting back at the tech position that the standards were a step too far, leaving the vulnerability of mass government surveillance. 

She said the real dystopian future would be one where “adults fail to protect children from vile forms of torture and sexual abuse, then allow their trauma to be freely shared with predators on a global scale”.

“That is the world we live in today,” she concluded.

Image credit: Via Ideogram

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Graeme Hanna
Tech Journalist

Graeme Hanna is a full-time, freelance writer with significant experience in online news as well as content writing. Since January 2021, he has contributed as a football and news writer for several mainstream UK titles including The Glasgow Times, Rangers Review, Manchester Evening News, MyLondon, Give Me Sport, and the Belfast News Letter. Graeme has worked across several briefs including news and feature writing in addition to other significant work experience in professional services. Now a contributing news writer at ReadWrite.com, he is involved with pitching relevant content for publication as well as writing engaging tech news stories.

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