By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia unveiled plans on Monday to make social media companies obtain parental consent for users under the age of 16, with multimillion dollar fines for failing to comply.
Draft legislation to enhance online privacy protections would require companies such as Facebook, anonymous forum Reddit, smartphone dating app Bumble and Facebook-owned messager Whatsapp to take all reasonable steps to determine users' ages and prioritise children's interests when collecting data.
If made law, the Online Privacy Bill would put Australia among the most stringent countries in terms of age controls for social media, and build on the country's efforts to rein in the power of Big Tech. The government has already introduced mandatory licencing payments for media outlets and plans to toughen laws against online misinformation and defamation.
"We are ensuring (Australians') data and privacy will be protected and handled with care," said Attorney-General Michaelia Cash in a statement. "Our draft legislation means that these companies will be punished heavily if they don't meet that standard."
Facebook Inc this month faced the ire of U.S. lawmakers after a former company employee leaked documents that highlighted concerns the company harmed children's mental health in pursuit of profits.
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman said "Facebook's own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people".
Facebook's director of public policy in Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick, said the company was reviewing the proposed law and understood "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".
The new law would raise penalties for any breaches of the code, with fines of either 10% of the company's domestic annual turnover, three times the financial benefit of the breach or A$10 million ($7.5 million). The current maximum fine is A$2.1 million.
In a previously-commissioned report published on Monday, privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner found that while most social media providers had an age minimum of 13, the limit was enforced by "self-attestation" rather than independent verification.
A Reddit representative was not immediately available for comment.
($1 = 1.3398 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry and Jane Wardell)