Search engine code gets green light with new AI protections

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner will register an online safety code covering internet search engines after industry was asked by the regulator to go back to the drawing board to ensure it contained protections against new risks posed by the integration of generative AI.

Online safety codes and standards will cover multiple sections of the online industry and require industry participants to take appropriate measures to address the risk of class 1 material including child sexual abuse material on their services in Australia.

eSafety reserved its decision to register an earlier version of the Search Code in June after Microsoft and Google announced they would incorporate generative AI functionality into their internet search engine services.  

The strengthened Search Code now requires services like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo to take important steps to reduce the risk that material like child abuse material is returned in search results and that AI functionality integrated with the search engines are not used to generate “synthetic” versions of this material.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant thanked industry for their cooperation and hard work in producing a Search Code that will provide meaningful safety protections to all Australians.

“I think this is a great example of how regulators and industry can work collaboratively to create safer online products,” Ms Inman Grant said. 

“The use of generative AI has grown so quickly that I think it’s caught the whole world off guard to a certain degree. 

“When the biggest players in the industry announced they would integrate generative AI into their search functions we had a draft code that was clearly no longer fit for purpose and could not deliver the community protections we required and expected. 

 “We asked the industry to have another go at drafting the code to meet those expectations and I want to commend them for delivering a code that will protect the safety of all Australians who use their products.”

The Search Code will come into effect six months from the date of registration.

In June, the eSafety Commissioner registered industry codes for five online industry sectors, namely Social Media Services, Internet Carriage Services, App Distribution Services, Hosting Services, and Equipment providers. 

eSafety is currently preparing draft industry standards for two further industry sectors, Designated Internet Services, which includes file and photo storage services like iCloud and OneDrive; and Relevant Electronic Services, which includes private messaging services.

eSafety made the decision not to register the codes submitted to cover these services due to a lack of adequate community protections. 

The finalisation of this set of industry codes and standards will be followed by work on a second set of industry codes which will focus on content which is inappropriate for children, such as online pornography. eSafety will assist industry in the development in this second set of industry codes. 

eSafety has been engaging closely with industry associations and industry participants throughout the development of the first phase of codes since mid-2021 as required under the Online Safety Act 2021. 

eSafety will oversee enforcement of the codes and standards to ensure that industry is complying with the requirements they have agreed to meet.

eSafety will be able to receive complaints about compliance with codes and standards and investigate potential breaches.  

The codes and standards are backed up by powers to seek enforceable undertakings and injunctions to ensure compliance.  Breaches may also be subject to civil penalties.

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