Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant is set to receive sweeping new powers in early 2022 as part of the Online Safety Act that passed Parliament last month. Among other things, the new Act extends the Commissioner's cyber takedown function to adults, giving the commissioner the power to issue takedown notices directly to the services hosting the content and end users responsible for the abusive content.
The new powers have been labelled as overbearing. As one Twitter user put it, the Commissioner is imminently receiving the "master on/off switch to the internet". Of concern to many is that it is not yet known what the test or criteria will be for determining if content warrants removal. There is much to take into account, especially when much of "Australian culture" includes the use of a curse word as a term of endearment; that tone, for example, can be hard to ascertain from a character-limited post.
The Act will formalise a voluntary scheme that eSafety has in place. The agency has received 3,600 adult cyber abuse-related requests since it began taking them informally in 2017. Only 72 of them, however, were considered by eSafety to be reaching its existing threshold for "real harm". One of them, Inman Grant told the Senate in May, was "horrific", and a few of them involved domestic violence and stalking.
This week, Inman Grant found herself amid a Twitter dispute when she stepped in to offer advice to an individual who explicitly tagged her for help. The incumbent eSafety Commissioner then allegedly blocked another individual who claimed they were simply disagreeing with the first individual's vaccination opinions.
"Part of eSafety's role is to provide education, support, and advice. We frequently offer information to those in distress -- including offering advice about using the reporting tools available on the platforms," an eSafety spokesperson told ZDNet.
"Although we don't yet have laws in place that allow us to deal with serious adult cyber abuse, currently we can help informally by providing support and guidance on what to do."
The eSafety spokesperson did not respond to questions, however, on whether a banhammer would be waved in a short amount of time when the scheme is formalised.
"In this case, the eSafety Commissioner was tweeted at by a person in distress, and the Commissioner provided our standard advice, including encouraging people to report an issue to the platform in the first instance," they said.
"This information is also available on the eSafety website, and advice that Twitter provides through its safety centre. This advice did not involve use of the Commissioner's powers, as tweeting at us (as described above) does not constitute a report that enlivens our powers."
The spokesperson then reiterated the office would take its obligations seriously under the Act and said the new laws would be critical in helping more Australians who are experiencing online harm.
They also said the complaints mechanism for reporting adult cyber abuse would be robust and that a simple tag of eSafety or the eSafety Commissioner in posts or comments on social media would not be treated as a formal report, as per its current practice.
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Australian Greens have put forward an amendment that seeks to withdraw the Bill and have it re-drafted to address its rushed nature.
The commissioner said a lot of online abuse is rooted in misogyny and intended to silence women's voices. She hopes the new Online Safety Act will go some way to prevent such abuse.
The eSafety Commissioner has defended the Online Safety Act, saying it's about protecting the vulnerable and holding the social media platforms accountable for offering a safe product, much the same way as car manufacturers and food producers are in the offline world.