Tue, 29 Dec 2020 - 13:37
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Act to get abusers offline

Australians take it for granted that if you are attacked in the street, you can get help.

You can report the attack to the police; the attacker can be arrested and charged; you can sue the attacker.

 

But if you are subject to savage, humiliating, repeated online abuse, at the moment it can be hard to get help.

 

Overwhelmingly what victims want is for the abuse to end, and for the material to be taken down.

 

Yet all too often the social media platforms take no action, even when the material breaches their terms of use.

 

The consequences can be devastating.

 

Ask AFLW player Tayla Harris, or former NRL coach Anthony Siebold, or journalist Erin Molan.

 

Tragically, former TV personality Charlotte Dawson took her own life in 2014 after being cruelly trolled on Twitter.

 

And for every prominent person whose case attracts media attention, there are hundreds of other Australians, similarly being subject to vicious online abuse, whom we don’t hear about.

 

It is no wonder that so many Australians are worried about online abuse, threats and organised “pile-ons” carried out by virtual lynch mobs.

 

The eSafety Commissioner receives thousands of reports of cyber abuse each year, but is limited in the actions she can take to assist adults, beyond offering support and resources to victims.

 

This world leading office, established in 2015, is the central point of contact in government helping Australians to stay safe online.

 

Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner, has strong legal powers.

 

If a child is the subject of cyberbullying on social media, and the platform fails to act, the eSafety Commissioner can order the material to be taken down.

 

If an intimate image is shared online without consent (colloquially known as “revenge porn”) the victim can go to the eSafety Commissioner, who can order that the material is taken down.

 

If abhorrent violent material -- such as the appalling video taken by the perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch massacre -- is distributed online during a crisis event, the eSafety Commissioner can order internet service providers to block access for a period of time.

 

These laws have helped many thousands of Australians since coming into force over recent years.

 

But serious gaps are emerging. The eSafety Commissioner does not yet have the power to order cyber abuse material directed at an adult to be taken down.

 

That is about to change.

 

In the 2019 election our Liberal National Government promised that we would introduce a new Online Safety Act to further boost the powers of the eSafety Commissioner.

 

After extensive work and consultation -- including a discussion paper issued in late 2019 -- the Government has now finalised a draft of this new Act.

 

Today I have released this exposure draft. The Government is seeking comment from Australians with an interest in this issue.

 

Julie Inman Grant, does a great job.

 

The Morrison Government has backed her strongly, with an extra $50 million of funding announced this year.

 

But this is a fast-moving area and new dangers arise all the time.

 

The new Online Safety Act will give Julie the powers she needs to deal with new online dangers – including ordering the removal of seriously harmful online abuse of an adult.

 

At the moment, if a child is bullied on a gaming platform, for example, today the eSafety Commissioner has no power to respond; the new Act will also change that.

 

The new Act will set a higher bar digital platforms must meet in protecting their Australian users. If they disregard a direction from the eSafety Commissioner, they will face penalties.

 

Today, too many perpetrators hide behind anonymous accounts online.  Under the new Act, the eSafety Commissioner can compel online services to give identity or contact information for those using their services to abuse others.

 

The new Act will be clear about what the Government, on behalf of all Australians, expects of digital platforms, by setting out what we are calling the “basic online safety expectations.”

 

  • We expect Australians to be able to use online services in a safe manner;
  • We expect that services cannot be used to bully, abuse or humiliate Australians; and
  • We expect service providers to have clear tools for users to report and lodge complaints about unacceptable use.

 

Under the new Act, service providers will have to report on how they are meeting these expectations.  If they fail to report when asked, they will face penalties.

 

There are laws to keep us safe in the physical town square.  When we are in the digital town square it should be no different.

 

This is the principle that has guided our Liberal National Government since 2013.

We have made good progress, but there is more to do.

 

The new Online Safety Act will be a big step forward. 

 

I look forward to getting feedback, finalising the draft, and introducing the legislation into Parliament in the new year.

 

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 23 December 2020