Wed, 28 Jul 2021 - 15:51
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Protecting Australians from online mistreatment

Our lives have been transformed by the internet—and mostly for the better. But there have been costs as well, social and individual.

Online harms such as bullying, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, and abhorrent content like child sexual abuse are completely unacceptable. Governments around the world are grappling with the problem.

Australia has been a leader globally in our approach to these issues.  

Six years ago we established the world’s first online safety watchdog, the eSafety Commissioner. And last month Parliament passed new online safety laws to strengthen eSafety’s powers.

These laws will come into effect early next year.

The new laws mean that the eSafety Commissioner will enforce the world’s-first cyber-abuse take-down scheme for Australian adults. The scheme will allow eSafety to order the removal of seriously harmful online abuse when social media companies fail to act upon user complaints.

In recent weeks, both here and in the UK, we’ve seen examples of racist online abuse hurled at prominent sports figures. The worst of these—which show a clear intent to cause serious harm, and which any reasonable person would regard as menacing, harassing or offensive—are the kind of cases which this new scheme is designed to deal with. 

Not all online harm will meet this deliberately high threshold, and the digital sector must also step up.

To this end, the Act introduces a clear statement of what the Morrison Government, on behalf of all Australians, expects of businesses in the digital sector: that they take firmer steps to block abusive material targeted at Australians on their platforms.

Unfortunately, the lockdowns now occurring in our major cities are likely to cause another spike in online abuse.  When people are confined to their homes they spend more time online, and that means, sadly, an increase in instances of poor behaviour online.  We saw during the extended lockdowns last year that complaints to the eSafety Commissioner rose sharply.

New statistics from eSafety show the scale of this issue.

In the first half of this year, complaints of serious cyberbullying against Australian children have been up by almost 30 per cent on the same period in 2020. Meanwhile, complaints of cyber abuse directed against adults are up by almost half.

Increasingly, harms such as cyberbullying against children are taking place on diverse platforms, including gaming sites. The new Act will provide eSafety with the tools to combat this.

The situation is equally alarming when we come to the worst-of-the-worst of online abuses, the sexual exploitation of children. Reports to eSafety under its prohibited online content scheme, the vast bulk of which captures child sexual abuse material, were up by more than 30 per cent in the first half of this year.

Here, too, the new Act will strengthen eSafety’s hand, empowering the Commissioner to respond more quickly to this appalling material, no matter where it is hosted.

We have backed the new powers with significant new funding: eSafety has a budget of $125 million over the next four years. This means eSafety has both the legal powers and the financial resources it needs to be a trusted and effective source of practical support for Australians whose safety is threatened online.

The Morrison Government has a clear focus on the importance of keeping Australians safe, whether in the physical world or the digital world.  

With new powers and extra funding, eSafety is there to support Australians if they face a threat to their safety online. 

A version of this article appeared in The Courier-Mail on 28 July 2021.