A draft law in Australia seeks to require social media platforms such as Facebook to seek parental consent for children and teens under 16 years old and to strengthen the protection of people’s personal information — or face hefty fines.

Seventeen million Australians use social media, but the existing privacy law “doesn’t provide specific protections against the misuse of Australians’ personal information by social media and other online platforms,” according to the proposed bill.

The draft law sets out an Online Privacy Code with the goal of strengthening the protection of users’ personal information, further protect children and vulnerable groups, and enhance penalties and enforcement mechanisms.

This new privacy code, if adopted, will apply to “organizations providing social media services,” which would include social media sites such as Facebook, dating sites such as Bumble, video-gaming platforms, videoconferencing services and online messaging platforms such as Zoom or WhatsApp, according to the bill’s explanatory paper.

It would also cover “organizations providing data brokerage services” (for instance, companies such as Nielsen and Experian) and "large online platforms” with at least 2.5 million users in the country, which would apply to companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google.

For children and vulnerable groups, the law would require companies that provide social media services to “take all reasonable steps to verify the age of individuals who use the social media service" and “obtain parental and guardian express consent before collecting, using or disclosing the personal information of a child under 16.”

Companies that breach these stipulations could face fines of up to $7.5 million.

Australia has adopted a raft of Internet regulations over the past year, including laws that pushed Facebook and Google to pay for news content and introduced penalties for executives over the streaming of violent images.

The negative effects of social media sites on children and teens has been in the spotlight since Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, blew the whistle on the company’s internal practices. A series published by the Wall Street Journal revealed that internal research by Instagram detailed the negative effect the social media platform — which is owned by Facebook — had on the body image of teenage girls.

David Coleman, Australia’s assistant minister to the prime minister for mental health and suicide prevention, said in a statement that the landmark legislation will lead the world in its efforts to protect children from social media platforms. He pointed to a 2018 survey conducted in the country among over 4,000 people between the ages of 12 to 25 in which social media platforms were mentioned as the main cause behind the decline of mental health among young people.

“We’ve been actively calling for privacy regulation and understand the importance of ensuring Australia’s privacy laws evolve at a comparable pace to the rate of innovation and new technology we’re experiencing today," Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director for public policy for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, said in a statement.

“We have supported the development of international codes around young people’s data, like the UK Age Appropriate Design Code,” she said. "We’re reviewing the draft bill and discussion paper released today, and look forward to working with the Australian government on this further.”

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