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Australian parliamentary committee summons Facebook, Google over abuse on platforms

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Indian Parliamentary Committees are not the only ones that are taking American tech giants to the task. Earlier today, the Australian House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs heard from representatives of Google and Facebook during its inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence. As the parliamentarians grilled the two companies about whether their measures to protect users from abusive content were adequate, both Google and Facebook defended their data disclosure practices, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Both companies reportedly said that they rejected about 20% of all data disclosure requests from Australian law enforcement agencies in 2019 as they were either too broad or had no legal basis.

This is because either the law enforcement agency had not given Google the relevant information needed to disclose the data or it had requested data about a Google user who was neither a citizen nor a resident of Australia, Samantha Yorke, from Google Australia’s head of government affairs and public policy department, reportedly said.

This appears to be a problem that afflicts Big Tech across borders. In Madras High Court, Facebook had said that it had fulfilled only 50% of content takedown requests because government requests were either not in the correct format, or they were missing FIR numbers, or they had not been mandated by court.

Identity verification by pvt companies raises privacy issues

Inman Grant, the Australian eSafety Commissioner who is a part of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, raised concerns around abusers using multiple fake accounts to target victims, the Australian reported. In response, Yorke said that Google was open to exploring identity verification using passports and driver’s licences.

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Yorke, however, reportedly warned that giving such information to private companies had its own privacy concerns — how would private companies authenticate and validate these documents? Her concerns were echoed by Garlick who reportedly said, “People tend not to advocate for companies like Facebook to collect more data.”

Concerns around end-to-end encryption raised

Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director of public policy for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands, reportedly defended the company’s move to end-to-end encryption across its messaging platforms. She reportedly said that the feature would be rolled out over “many years” and that Facebook would work with the Department of Home Affairs and security agencies during the process. The Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes Australia, and other countries including India and Japan have repeatedly asked Facebook to reconsider this move.

Grant reportedly said that treating privacy and security as mutually exclusive created a “false dichotomy”. She raised concerns about how end-to-end encryption would prevent authorities from scanning for child sexual abuse images.

This is not the first time that Australia has expressed its concerns over Facebook’s end-to-end encryption plans. In October 2019, the continent-nation, along with the UK and US had written an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking him not to introduce end-to-end encryption or to build a backdoor to it, a request that Facebook and WhatsApp had firmly rejected. More recently, in October 2020, Australia, along with its Five Eyes compatriots, and India and Japan, had asked companies to create backdoors to end-to-end encrypted platforms for law enforcement purposes.

In both these cases, the countries had cited inability to take down child sexual abuse material (CSAM) as one of the main reasons for asking for backdoors.

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