Australia's anti-trolling Bill enters Parliament retaining defamation focus

The anti-trolling Bill is focused on defamation rather than reducing troll and harmful content.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor
Image: Getty Images

The federal government has officially introduced the highly-publicised anti-trolling Bill into Parliament.

The Bill, Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill 2022, was first announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November as a mechanism that would "unmask anonymous online trolls" and address toxic content existing on social media platforms.  

The anti-trolling Bill has since been touted by the Liberal Senator and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash as one of her party's primary items that it wants to push out before the federal election. 

Introduced by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on Thursday morning, the Bill remains largely unchanged from the exposure draft version released in December.

Despite being called an anti-troll Bill, the proposed laws do not contain any sections addressing troll or harmful content. At its core, the Bill is focused on empowering people to raise lawsuits for online defamation rather than explicitly preventing cyberbullying and online abuse.

Last week, Australia's eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman outlined her concern about this, specifically on how it may be misused due to the lack of these elements addressing troll and harmful content.

"I think [the anti-trolling Bill] can lend itself to a lot of retaliation, a lot of vigilante-style justice," said Inman Grant.

The other focus of the Bill, according to its explanatory memorandum, is to overturn a recent Australian legal precedent set in the Voller case, which made individuals and organisations liable for defamatory material that exists on their social media pages.

The Bill, if passed, would result in administrators of social media pages no longer being liable to defamation for third-party material posted on those pages. That liability would shift to social media service providers instead.

Looking at the Bill's details, much like its exposure draft, it is still seeking to formally classify social media service providers as publishers of any comments made on their platforms in Australia. To avoid defamation under the Bill, social media service providers would need to have a complaints scheme in place that allows victims of defamatory comments to both make complaints and request the personal information of the maker of those comments.

Complaints scheme that satisfy the Bill's requirements would also have to ensure that an accused commenter is notified that they are the subject of a complaint within 72 hours of it being made. If the accused commenter gives consent for their personal information to be provided, social media platforms must then disclose that information to complainants and assist them in relation to potentially raising any defamation lawsuits.

This personal information would include contact details such as name, email address, phone number as well as country location data to determine if the user is in Australia. Geolocation data provided under the Bill would be limited to whether or not the material was "posted in Australia" by reference to geolocation technology deployed by the social media provider.

The disclosure mechanism can also only be enlivened where there is reason to believe that there may be a right for the complainant to obtain relief against the poster in a defamation proceeding.

As parliamentarians deliberate over the Bill, Australia's federal inquiry into the practices of major technology companies is set to provide its findings later this month. The social media probe was approved by the federal government with the intention of building on the anti-trolling Bill's initial goal of unmasking trolls.


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