Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s Scomo

The always honest Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s says new social media laws will protect Australian citizens from anonymous trolls. But should we believe him? Leanne Elliott looks at what we know about the proposed legislation aimed at ‘unmasking’ anonymous social media accounts.

Last week Prime Minister, Scott Morrison announced a draft ‘social media anti-trolling legislation’ will be put before parliament this week, claiming it will create new laws aimed at taming the “digital wild west”.

In a recent media release Morrison stated:

“First, global social media platforms will be required to establish a quick, simple and standardised complaints system that ensures defamatory remarks can be removed and trolls identified with their consent. This recognises that Australians often just want harmful comments removed.

Second, a new Federal Court order will be established that requires social media giants to disclose identifying details of trolls to victims, without consent, which will then enable a defamation case to be lodged.”

The move to shift liability toward the “social media giants” is controvert to the High Court ruling earlier this year which ruled people or companies who own or host social media pages are liable for defamatory comments posted to their page.

The new draft legislation has been met with harsh criticism, with some labelling the move as “a power grab” and yet another way for governments to censor or encourage the self-censorship of critics.

The ABC quoted Morrison, “It’s not so much a discussion, I’m telling them [social media giants] what we’re doing, and I’m expecting them to respond.

“And I will keep taking it further, until they continue to do the responsible thing” said Morrison.

According to Business Insider, Facebook and Twitter have hit back at the Australian government, reasoning “that certain users — including whistleblowers, political activists, and LGBTIQ people — may have good reasons for wanting to preserve their anonymity.”

With many other commentators stating the legislation will stifle open discussion, particularly in the political domain.

Keeping Australians Safer?

Five Eyes governments targeting ‘ubiquitous’ encryption to combat cybercrime is nothing new, with the 2018 Five Country Ministerial stating:

“Privacy laws must prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference, but privacy is not absolute. It is an established principle that appropriate government authorities should be able to seek access to otherwise private information when a court or independent authority has authorized such access based on established legal standards.”

In keeping with the Five Eyes digital philosophy, Australian law enforcement agencies have been given considerable powers, including the ability to “modify, add, copy or delete data when investigating serious online crimes.”

Moreover, the Communications Commissioner, Paul Fletcher, told the ABC in October, the e-Safety Commission was granted back in March “new powers to require the (social media) platforms to hand over the identity of trolls.”

Fletcher also stated, the e-Commissioner has the power to “issue penalties against trolls online.”

These powers are part of the Online Safety Act which is expected to come into effect on 1 January 2022.

Australia already has some of the broadest and toughest laws governing digital spaces and communication in the Western world. Just to name a few:

  • Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015
  • Enhancing Online Safety (Non-consensual Sharing of Intimate Images) Act 2018
  • Criminal Code Act 1995
  • Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) 2015-16
  • Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2021
  • Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2021
  • Anti-Discrimination Laws
  • Defamation Laws

There are also State Laws which govern online behaviour, but these vary per state.

What Do The Critics Say?

The Australian government is no stranger to criticism for its austere attitude toward the digital rights of Australian citizens.

Media and Communications lecturer at Swinburn University, Dr Belinda Barnet, told Business Insider, the legislation is “[…] certainly not going to help 99% of victims of trolling in Australia.”

Barnet also highlighted that the time and cost involved in defamation cases will deter many from taking a defamation case to court, adding that, “the proposal demonstrated a lack of understanding of the way the internet works by the government.”

“Forcing social media users to identify themselves means every public servant, teacher, nurse, cop, anyone with a job with a strict HR policy on public post, etc etc etc won’t be able to participate in public discussion about politics or policy. How is this good for democracy?” – Sally Rugg.

Criticism of the planned legislation has come from a variety of sources. Activist, digital campaigner, author and speaker, Sally Rugg has openly criticised the governments proposed legislation on twitter.

“I’m desperate to address online bullying, which destroys lives of many LGBTQ kids. And as someone who receives extraordinary abuse from anonymous accounts, I have skin in this game.

“But Gov’s plan will ONLY protect powerful people and will chill public criticism of politicians,” said Rugg.

Writer and Broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, hit out at the legislation stating, “It has been said by many, but let us be clear – ANONYMITY IS NOT THE ISSUE. The issue is Australia is RUN BY BULLIES.

“They will do everything in their quite hefty power to keep things the way they are – n in quite frankly authoritarian fashion, PUNISH anyone who dares speak.”

Empowering Social Media Users

Except for in extreme cases, social media users have a range of options to protect themselves online, without government assistance.

The number of social media platforms, chat services and interactive sites are voluminous and many of these platforms already have mechanisms in place which deter trolling.

For example, social media platforms can shadow ban users, remove or censor and require new users to provide an email and/or phone number to register an account.

Moreover, social media platforms have redesigned their platforms to give users more control over their digital footprints and online privacy. For example, users are often able to:

  • Make their account private
  • Control who can see their posts and information
  • Mute or Block accounts
  • Lodge a complaint or report harmful online behaviour
  • Suspend or delete accounts in breach of the terms of service
  • Contact the platform to report harmful content or request that it be removed
  • Check IP addresses which have signed into the account
  • Use multifactor authentication for added account security

Further Consideration

This is a battle of the giants, the Government Vs Social Media Giants. All the while, everyday people, like you and I, are having our digital rights gradually stripped away. Hopefully once the legislation is released, we will know more, but until that time there are some important questions needing to be asked.

  • Who will these laws help exactly? Australia is already referred to as the “defamation capital of the world” and it is no secret the defamation system is in urgent need of reform. The government has stated it is seeking and will back test cases, but this will most likely be temporary backing which will be withdrawn once legal precedents have been set.
  • How are smaller social media companies or individuals (such as citizen journalists) meant to compete with social media and publishing giants like Facebook, Twitter, or the Murdoch press? The major players have money and lawyers at their disposal 24/7, not to mention, they have the time and resources to either develop the infrastructure necessary to appease the Australian government, or to defend itself when required.
  • What about data security and digital privacy? Social media companies try their darnedest to keep their platforms secure but with hundreds of data breaches occurring every year in Australia (and millions across the globe), these new data collection requirements may in fact expose Australians to a greater risk of their personal information ending up in the wrong hands.

While it is easy to categorise all anonymous accounts as nefarious or as having some despicable agenda, there are different types of anonymous accounts which demonstrate it is not all bad.

Ultimately, this legislation is not designed to protect the ‘everyday Australian’, rather, the main beneficiaries of this draft legislation will be the defamation lawyers and people power who have the time and money to pursue complaints in a court of law.

The government might be better off investing in ways to improve the digital literacy & technical skills of all Australians. Providing free education and digital awareness campaigns will empower Australians to take control of their digital identity and provide the necessary skills which can be used to avoid, deter or report social media trolls.

Lastly, if you are a parent (like me) there are things you can do to ensure your child is safe online. For example, if your child is under 18 make it a rule that you have the passwords for their accounts so you can monitor their activity and audit their devices regularly, install parental control software to monitor or limit online content, and discourage your child from using the device alone in their room (or simply take it off them at bed time). And, parents need to talk with their kids and help educate them about the benefits and dangers of the “digital wild west”; after all, knowledge is power.

Making a Complaint

If you are a victim of online trolling, there are numerous organisations which can provide information or assist with the complaints process.

  • Children’s eSafety Commissioner
  • Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network

Also, you can lodge a complaint by visiting the e-Safety Commission website. While children (or their parent/guardian) can lodge a complaint to the Children’s safety Commissioner here.

Feature Image by commercialart on Vecteezy, edited by Leanne Elliott, Staff Writer

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