eSafety Commissioner ‘worried’ about govt’s defamation reforms

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant is “worried” about the government’s so-called anti-trolling reforms, saying they could lead to vigilante justice and may confuse the public.

Appearing before the Select Committee on Social Media and Online Safety on Thursday afternoon, Ms Inman Grant agreed with other witnesses that the government’s anti-trolling bill is not about trolls at all, but rather defamation.

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

Julie Inman-Grant
Julie Inman Grant: Australian eSafety Commissioner

Despite it being named the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill, the word “trolling” or “troll” does not appear in it once, and Department representatives last week confirmed it is about defamation only.

Ms Inman Grant said she is concerned that the new powers would lead people to take matters into their own hands.

“The one thing I’m worried about the anti-trolling bill…is that I think it can lend itself to a lot of retaliation, a lot of vigilante-style justice,” Ms Inman Grant told the committee.

“I do worry about what that would mean in terms of giving individuals that kind of information, and that might be an IP address that the everyday person can’t do much with.”

The eSafety Commission, who was recently reappointed for a further five years, said she heard about the proposed bill and raised these concerns with the government last year.

“I got wind of it and we did have a couple of conversations and I expressed some of our concerns. Most of it was around deconfliction, expectations and confusion. Unfortunately I think that’s what we’ve seen a bit,” she said.

“What you’ve heard people say – which I believe to be true – is you can troll somebody incessantly and it might never be defamation or serious cyber abuse. A good lesson here is that lexicon matters and what we’re communicated to people matters.”

Ms Inman Grant agreed with shadow cybersecurity minister Tim Watts that the government’s legislation is not to do with combatting trolls.

“I don’t think it’s ideal,” she said.

“It’s probably a defamation reform bill. That does create some confusion with the public and what my primary concern is 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.

“We don’t over-promise that we’re going to unmask any trolls.”

The eSafety Commission received about 4700 reports to its information adult cyber abuse scheme from 2017 to the end of 2021, and nearly a third of these were in regards to defamation, something which is outside of its remit.

At the beginning of last year, three quarters of these reports to the Commission were about defamatory content.

Appearing before the committee last month, University of Western Australia research associate Noelle Martin said the “anti-trolling” bill will not help victims of online abuse.

“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 said.

“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.”

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