Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones is pictured in her Melbourne office. Ms Jones could become the world’s first digital platforms ombudsman. Picture: Ian Currie/News Corp Australia
Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones is pictured in her Melbourne office. Ms Jones could become the world’s first digital platforms ombudsman. Picture: Ian Currie/News Corp Australia

Australia to get world’s first social media cop

Australia is poised to become the first country in the world to get an independent referee for social media disputes, and the woman tipped to take the role says action is urgently needed to protect Aussie consumers and small businesses from growing "harm".

The Digital Platforms Ombudsman, one of 23 recommendations proposed after an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, could fight problems on tech giants' platforms including scams, identity theft, fake reviews, censorship, and advertising dramas with the potential to cripple small businesses.

But industry experts warned taking international tech giants to task in Australia could be difficult, and an ombudsman would need enforcement powers to avoid becoming a "paper tiger".

Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones. Picture: Ian Currie
Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones. Picture: Ian Currie

In its report, the ACCC recommended Australia's Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman take on the task of refereeing complaints and disputes with digital platforms from both consumers and small businesses.

And Ombudsman Judi Jones told News Corp her initial investigation had uncovered clear evidence many Australians were not getting justice on serious issues encountered on platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

"In my view, there's nowhere for consumers to go," Ms Jones said.

"At the moment, there is no external dispute resolution service apart from the courts that you can go to and say, 'I've tried to resolve this with a digital platform'. Having an independent third party to go to when you can't resolve an issue would be helpful."

 

The digital referee will tackle tech giants, such as Google. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez
The digital referee will tackle tech giants, such as Google. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Issues identified by the TIO included consumers being impersonated, scammed, and hacked on social networks, and small businesses struggling to have negative comments and reviews removed from digital platforms, being locked out of their accounts, and receiving "misleading" advertising services.

Ms Jones said digital platforms ombudsman could not only serve to judge the complaints, but could also order content be removed, demand compensation for small businesses suffered "business loss" as a result, and identify widespread scams or problems on digital platforms.

"It's not that scams will always be the fault of digital platforms but we need to work out what they are doing in response," she said.

"We'd be working out if they are helping to perpetuate (scams), for example."

Ms Jones said she was eager to "engage" with tech giants to achieve fair and reasonable outcomes for complainants but, as in the case of telecommunications firms, the ombudsman could seek help from the Australian Communications and Media Authority to enforce rulings.

"When I make a decision, they're be required to implement it and, if they don't, we refer it to ACMA for enforcement action," she said. "In an ideal world, you'd have a strong advocacy body and you'd have a strong regulator taking action."

Swinburne University social media major director Dr Belinda Barnet said many frustrated Australian users would welcome help from a digital platforms ombudsman.

But she warned careful consideration was needed to give the scheme enough powers over the global companies to avoid it becoming a "paper tiger," and that tech giants may resist Australia's move.

"They're not going to like it but they will have to go along with it if the Australian government legislates it," he said.

"For Australian citizens, there's no recourse; there's no phone number, there's no federal representative to go into bat for you. If the telecommunications ombudsman can take that on it would be great for Australian consumers and businesses."

The Federal Government is expected to publish new submissions to the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry final report next week, and release its findings by the end of the year.


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