eSafety worried proposed anti-trolling laws may be used in vigilante-style justice

With Australia's proposed Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill 2021 primarily being focused on defamation, Australia's eSafety Commissioner expressed disappointment that the laws would most likely not live up to the original goal of 'unmasking trolls'.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

Australia's eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant has criticised the federal government's proposed anti-trolling legislation, outlining that it may be misused due to the lack of elements explicitly preventing cyberbullying and online abuse.

"I think [the anti-trolling Bill] can lend itself to a lot of retaliation, a lot of vigilante-style justice," Inman Grant said, who was reappointed into the eSafety commissioner post a fortnight ago.

"I do worry about what that would mean in terms of giving individuals that kind of information, and that might be an IP address, or MAC address, or a device ID that the everyday person can't do much with."

Inman Grant made these comments before the Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety, which was set up by the federal government late last year with the intention of building on the proposed anti-trolling laws.

In explaining her concerns, Inman Grant said the Bill does not contain a single element addressing "trolls", with the proposed legislation being focused on defamation.

In the leadup to the Bill's exposure draft being released, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the proposed laws would be used to reduce online abuse and ultimately "unmask anonymous online trolls".

"There is no place for people to be anonymously going round and undertaking this horrific abuse and harassment and stalking online," Morrison said at the time.

"Anonymous trolls are on notice, you will be named and held to account for what you say. Big tech companies are on notice, remove the shield of anonymity or be held to account for what you publish."

As currently drafted, the anti-trolling laws would require social media platforms 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. In outlining what comments fall within the proposed laws' scope, the Bill does not require the comments to be about cyberbullying or online abuse.

Since the release of the Bill's exposure draft, experts have been quick to flag that the laws would have a limited impact on online abuse. According to Elise Thomas, an open-source intelligence analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, social media users are already happy to make cruel comments under their own names.

When asked about the doubt surrounding the Bill's efficacy, Inman Grant said she was concerned that the proposed laws would most likely not live up to the initial expectation of "unmasking trolls".

"It's probably a defamation reform bill. That does create some confusion with the public and what my primary concern is making sure we're seeing the right expectations for the public so they know where to go when they experience personal harms or are a victim of online abuse," she said.

Earlier on Thursday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified to the same committee Thursday that the platform deliberately provides less help, reporting of online abuse, and safety to Australian users to save on costs.

"I'm sure on a per capita basis there is less help, less support, and less safety for Australians because Facebook knows it operates in the dark. Where they don't have to, they don't apologise about anything," Haugen told the committee.

Over the past few weeks, the select committee has heard from various government agencies and tech giants about social media's role in online abuse. The committee is set to provide the inquiry's findings later this month.

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