Australia wants social media companies to seek parental consent for kids

Australia wants to make social media companies seek parental consent for users younger than 16 years old or face fines of 10 million Australian dollars ($7.5 million) under a draft law released Monday.

The landmark legislation aims "to ensure that Australia's privacy laws remain fit for purpose in the digital age," a government statement said

It would create a binding code that would require companies to take all reasonable steps to verify their users’ ages for social media services, data brokers and other large online platforms operating in the country.

The proposed legislation, called the Online Privacy Bill, would also give primary consideration to the best interests of children when handling their personal information. The code would require platforms to obtain parental consent for users under the age of 16.

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Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman said the new code would lead the world in protecting children from social media companies.

"In Australia, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a consistent increase in signs of distress and mental ill-health among young people," Coleman said. "While the reasons for this are varied and complex, we know that social media is part of the problem."

In this photo illustration the social media icons (Messenger

FILE - Social media icons are seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash added that the draft law would ensure Australians' privacy "would be treated more carefully and transparently" by such platforms.

"We know that Australians are wary about what personal information they give over to large tech companies. We are ensuring their data and privacy will be protected and handled with care," said Cash.

She added that the draft legislation means that companies would be "punished heavily" for not meeting such standards.

The proposed legal changes come after former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen this month asserted that whenever there was a conflict between the public good and what benefited the company, the social media giant would choose its own interests.

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Facebook regional director of public policy Mia Garlick said her platform had been calling for Australia’s privacy laws to evolve with new technology.

"We have supported the development of international codes around young people’s data, like the U.K. Age Appropriate Design Code," Garlick said in a statement, referring to British legislation introduced this year that requires platforms to verify users’ ages if content risks the moral, physical or mental well-being of children.

"We’re reviewing the draft bill and discussion paper released today, and look forward to working with the Australian government on this further," Garlick added.

Australia has been a prominent voice in calling for international regulation of the internet.

It passed laws this year that oblige Google and Facebook to pay for journalism. Australia also defied the tech companies by creating a law that could imprison social media executives if their platforms stream violent images.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.