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Social networking websites may face government regulation

Parliament may impose age verification laws and internet ombudsman, according to Cyber Safety Committee deputy chair

Facebook, MySpace and Bebo are in the firing line from Cyber Safety Committee deputy chair, Alex Hawke, saying that Australian children younger than 13 use their websites despite the current 13+ age restriction.

Hawke said that unless social networking websites show more responsibility, Parliament may be forced to impose regulations so there are effective measures taken to protect children and deal with online bullying.

He told Computerworld Australia that the options it is considering would include age verification laws which require social networking websites to verify the age of their users.

"There has also been the question of an internet ombudsman as an option for people to have the ability to raise these problems with a central portal," he said.

"We're also encouraging social networking sites to open offices in Australia or at least have an arm which can be dealt with by Australians as a way of preventing regulatory response."

According to Hawke, Facebook is the only company to have appointed a representative in Australia.

He added that Parliamentary committees have heard the "farcical suggestions" from social networking companies that there are no children under 13 years of age on their websites.

"The problem is these social networking companies continue to say `we're offshore and there is nothing you can do about it' when we're dealing with profoundly young children using these sites and these companies really need to engage better with regulators in Australia," he said.

Hawke, who is also a Coalition MP, said that the Coalition's Online Safety Working Group is actively looking at the proposed regulations.

"If we are returned to government, we will put in place policy in this area," he said.

Computerworld Australia has contacted Facebook Australia and is awaiting comment.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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