Mon, 20 Dec 2021 - 07:46
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Online abuse is toxic, and it must stop

Almost a quarter of Australian women aged 18-24 have had a nude or sexual image of them posted online without their consent.

 

This is a remarkable and deeply troubling statistic.

 

On the one hand it highlights just how quickly the internet has become a dominant influence in the way we interact with each other. On the other it highlights how the internet, for all the benefits it has delivered, has also created significant new risks of harm.

 

The rise of image-based abuse (or what we colloquially call “revenge porn”) as a threat to young women was what I thought of, first, when I read Paul Kelly’s article  in The Australian last Wednesday, aptly titled, “Big Tech threat to young women compels us to act.” Kelly argues that Big Tech, specifically social media, is a threat to young people—but young women especially—and that this has been a key factor in the Morrison Government’s recent policy decisions on online safety.

 

Kelly is spot on.

 

This was highlighted all over again with the recent vicious trolling of my friend and colleague Nicolle Flint, the MP for Boothby in Adelaide. A popular left-wing YouTube channel posted a highly misogynistic video, attacking Nicolle, that resulted in a torrent of threatening and abusive comments. And yet, when Nicolle asked Google to remove this toxic abuse, she got nowhere.

 

But let’s be clear: this isn’t about women politicians, or women celebrities, or women sport stars. It’s simply about women.

 

The numbers tell the story. Almost a third of Australian adult women have experienced online abuse or harassment. Over a third or working women have experienced online abuse in their working lives. And technology is a rapidly growing source of harm in domestic and family violence cases—for example, the use of mobile phones for stalking and harassment.

 

The safety of women and girls online been a motivating factor in all we have done since coming into government in 2013, including the establishment of the world’s first online safety watchdog, the eSafety Commissioner in 2015. And yes, Paul Kelly is right that it has been key to the Morrison Government’s recent suite of changes to the laws that protect Australians online.

 

Next month, our new Online Safety Act, which passed the Parliament this year, will come into force. One of its most important measures is a world-first adult cyber abuse scheme, which will authorise eSafety to order platforms to take down the worst kinds of toxic abuse.

 

The threshold for the scheme has been set deliberately high, to acknowledge the value Australians place on free speech. But let’s be clear: abusing women online is appalling and unacceptable, even if it falls below some legal threshold.

 

In addition, abusive material directed at women that does not meet the cyber abuse threshold may well fall under the new anti-trolling laws the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General announced last month. These laws will help people who are defamed online to unmask their anonymous trolls more easily. The Big Tech companies will have a strong incentive to facilitate this unmarking; otherwise, they could quickly find themselves liable in defamation as publishers of the content.

 

But the worrying revelations from US whistleblower Frances Haugen back in October reinforced that we can never be complacent where the safety of citizens online is concerned. That is why we set up a new Parliamentary Committee, chaired by Lucy Wicks MP, to look at these issues. The Committee has already begun holding hearings, as it gathers evidence about emerging online threats. In the new year it will give parents and others an opportunity to articulate what they expect from the Big Tech companies and we expect these companies to respond.

 

Given how many online threats confront children and young people specifically, we have also, just last week, announced an Online Safety Youth Advisory Council. Working with the eSafety Commissioner, the Council will ensure that the lived experience of young people helps to guide our approaches to online safety.

 

There has been very strong community support for all of these moves the Morrison Government is making—with one exception. As we were moving the new Act through the Parliament, we faced bitter opposition from the Greens political party. They tried to shelve the Act. In their alternative motion in the Senate, they argued it was too rushed, too tough, and carried “potential significant and detrimental effects on sex workers.”

 

For a political party that grandstands on women’s issues, this took brazen hypocrisy to a new level.

 

Australians concerned about their safety online, and the safety of those they care about, should be thankful the Greens have no influence whatsoever on decisions taken by the Australian Government. Let’s hope it stays that way.

This article appeared in The Australian on 20 December 2021