Australia’s online safety reform ‘not worthy of its name’

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government’s online safety laws and the eSafety Commissioner are “woefully inadequate”, and planned reforms will do nothing to help those most impacted from online harms, according to University of Western Australia research associate Noelle Martin.

Ms Martin, who was the WA Australian of the Year in 2019, told a public hearing for the Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety on Tuesday that the series of planned online safety reforms will not live up to their name.

The government last month unveiled draft anti-trolling legislation which would enable those who have been defamed to identify anonymous posters of the defamatory material and reverse the High Court’s decision that administrators of social media pages are liable for defamatory comments posted by third parties.

While the government is branding this as an effort to assist victims of abuse online, Ms Martin said the reform will do nothing to help those who actually need it.

“I believe that the bill is not an online safety bill, and it’s not an unmasking online trolls bill. It is purely and simply an assisting well-resourced defamation claimants bill. If this committee is serious about addressing online safety…this bill contains fundamental flaws,” Ms Martin told the committee.

“It’s not worthy of its name. It’s utterly inaccessible for those who suffer the most profound harms facilitated by the internet. Without major ratifications to the bill it is a narrowly targeted reform that will only strengthen the hands of already powerful individuals. It is not a bill for the safety of everyday Australians.”

Ms Martin is a lawyer, legal researcher and advocate for online safety. She has publicly spoken about being the victim of sexual-based deep fake images on the internet, with her subsequent activism leading to new laws around the country.

But Ms Martin said the new system is still failing victims of online abuse. She pointed to the eSafety Commissioner’s annual report which shows that while it received 2,687 reports of image-based abuse, it only issued one removal notice, two remedial notices and one warning.

“The existing powers of the eSafety Commissioner are being grossly underutilised. It has a number of powers already…but the system of image-based abuse was introduced in 2018 and it has extremely low rates of enforcement action,” she said.

“The eSafety Commissioner and the Online Safety scheme we have in Australia are just not being used, victims aren’t getting the support they need and that’s why I have deep concerns about the new reforms to online safety in the country because I worry that the same pattern will be true based on the regulator’s own statistics.

“If someone like myself was targeted by the very same thing as I was today, despite the fact we now have these laws, they’d still be in the same position as me and I think that in many ways is an indictment on the legal system and online safety framework we have in Australia.”

The eSafety Office and other online safety laws in Australia are “woefully inadequate”, Ms Martin said.

“Contrary to what this committee has heard so far, Australia’s online safety laws and in particular the Office of the eSafety Commissioner are woefully inadequate. The legal tools available to victims are superficial, the regulator continues to be under-utilised its existing statutory powers, misguides the public on its perceived successes and the whole regime is ineffective in preventing or reacting to online abuse and providing meaningful support to survivors,” she said.

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