Protecting women in the cloud: eSafety hopes the Online Safety Act will do just that

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.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant is hopeful the country's new Online Safety Act will go some way to protecting women and girls in the online world as people grapple with how to do exactly that in the offline world.

"You wouldn't be surprised that 70% of the reports of all forms of abuse that come into our office are from women and girls," Inman Grant told senators on Tuesday night. "That even applies to child sexual abuse where 90% of the perpetrators are men and 84% of the victims are girls.

"That applies to image-based abuse, that applies to youth-based cyberbullying, and certainly to adult cyber abuse."

There are a handful of programs Inman Grant said that "cover the continuum of women and the spectrum of harms". One receiving a lot of attention from her office is a program aiming to help women experiencing domestic and family violence.

"One, of course, where women are particularly vulnerable, are women that are experiencing domestic and family violence, where technology-facilitated abuse is present as an extension of that coercion control and surveillance in 99.3% of these cases, and they deserve special protections," she said.

The commissioner is also concerned about women in the public sphere, pointing to the experience recently recounted by Liberal MP Nicole Flint as one example.  

"We know that women are three times more likely to receive online abuse, but the tenor and tone of the abuse is very different too, it tends to be sexualised, violent, will target things like your fertility or appearance," Inman Grant said.

"It's rooted in misogyny, and it's meant to silence women's voices. We know from women that they self-censor, or they will get off social media altogether.

"Social media did promise to be a great leveller. In terms of promoting women's voices, we need to do a better job at protecting those voices online."

Senators pointed to the work underway by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, asking Inman Grant if the contents of the Online Safety Act would help protect women.

"I think they will immeasurably, and in the end, as I say, particularly with the serious adult cyber abuse scheme, we'll continue with our prevention programs … and the proactive and systemic change work that we do, including the work we're doing around technology, challenges, and trends," she said.

"Of course, we know that a lot of trolls will use the veil of anonymity to try and abuse women with impunity. So all of these things I think, will come together and give us some important potent new tools to help us -- a lot of this abuse that we see is rooted in misogyny, in racism, in hate that is surfaced by social media.

"And this abuse online, targeting women, reinforces the gender inequality that already exists in our societies and our institutions. So we really need to protect women in the cloud as well."

See also: Three women in tech keeping the gender conversation going

Banter won't qualify for intervention

With the new proposed law extending the cyber takedown function to adults, eSafety will have the power to issue takedown notices directly to the services hosting the content and end users responsible for the abusive content.

Inman Grant clarified that the takedown directive -- which is slashed from 48 to 24 hours under the new legislation -- would only apply in serious situations.

"The adult cyber abuse scheme is set at a very high threshold because adults are more resilient," she said, noting it's on par with the Criminal Code, which uses the terminology "to use a carriage service provider to menace, harass, or cause offence".

She also said the term "offensive" is sometimes taken out of context.

"This is a very, very high threshold, where we have to make out intent to cause serious harm directed to a specific Australian individual. The second part of the test is an objective test that would ask those questions," she added.

"I do think we need to set expectations so that people -- when they come to us, that it's not just going to be banter or opinions or mean statements, that there's a very, very high bar that has to be met before we can before we would recommend removal of that content."

The commissioner also addressed concerns of the overreaching powers that eSafety is set to receive with the legislation.

"I can't speculate about future safety commissioners and how they might use the power. All I would say is that, in my 30 years in working in technology, I've learned that you can't anticipate the creative and myriad ways that people will misuse technology. And it requires us to have a broad toolkit," she said.

"I think the lines were carefully drawn on to make sure that there wasn't suppression of free speech, and that there are a number of transparency and accountability provisions available."

She said beyond the AAT review, there's also potentially judicial review and involvement from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, in addition to amendments currently being drafted around an internal review process.

"And I'd say also that there was a pretty rigorous merit-based process that was involved for me landing this role. I fully anticipate that the government would be looking at people who have experience at the intersection of technology, policy, and social justice and would assess any concerning ideological events that might influence their decision making," Inman Grant said.

"I'm influenced by how do I minimise the risk to online citizens and I would expect the future eSafety Commissioner would hold those same values."


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