Is govt using China as its model for social media regulation?

James Riley
Editorial Director

Scott Morrison says his government will introduce “world-leading” new court powers to force global social media companies to “unmask” anonymous social media trolls.

If by “world-leading’ the Prime Minister is implying a world-first effort, he may have overlooked that China has laws that make it illegal to act anonymously online.

Mr Morrison says the reforms “will be some of the strongest powers in the world,” which may well be true in so far as they seek to ape China’s social media regulation.

You can only guess that “standing up and stepping up” to the actions of Big Tech must do well in focus groups, because it is everywhere right now – through the Online Safety Act that comes into effect in January and the troubled development of industry codes which come into effect next June; through the Basic Online Safety Expectations; and through the Online Privacy Bill which is in consultation.

Parliament Canberra
Big Tech, Big Stick Credit: travellight /

And then there is the Age Verification Scheme (also out for consultation). Now there is this proposed legislation to combat online trolls and to strengthen defamation laws. It’s a lot.

The Prime Minister has been hyper aggressive on this stuff in recent weeks and was about as pugnacious as he ever gets at his press conference on Sunday.

“In a free society such as Australia, where we value our free speech, it is only free when that is balanced with the responsibility for what you say,” Mr Morrison said.

“Free speech is not being allowed to cowardly hide in your basement and sledge and slur and harass people anonymously and seek to destroy their lives. That’s not freedom. That’s cowardice. And there’s no place for that in this country,” he said.

The proposed legislation seeks to do three things. First, it seeks to “unmask trolls” by removing the “digital shield” of anonymity. Social media companies will be required to know exactly who their users are and to identify them to a process when asked. Anonymity would not be allowed.

Secondly, social media companies would need to come up with “easy” take-down processes. Where a user felt they had been defamed through comments on a social media site they can request that the comment be taken down – with the consent of the person who left the comment.

If consent is not given, the aggravated party can request the identity details of the person leaving the comments, in order to take the matter further.

Thirdly, under the proposed laws the social media companies will be deemed as publishers in relation to all third-party comments on a social media page. It means the companies are responsible for those comments. If the social media company chooses not to take down a comment, nor identify the commenter to the person or company alleging they had been defamed – they are responsible for the comments and liable to penalties.

There is an awful lot going on in this proposed legislation. Mr Morrison is yelling at the social media companies to “fix it”, without really understanding that the “fix” he has in mind brings a raft of negative consequences, intended or otherwise.

There are plenty of reasons why people want to be anonymous online. Whistle-blowers and victims of domestic violence are a couple of obvious examples, but there are many, far more mundane reasons people chose to be anonymous when online.

They’re not all trolls, terrorists, bots or bigots as Scott Morrison suggests. Mainly they are just people who are living their lives.

There is some awful stuff that gets written online, not all of it anonymously. But this might be an issue that goes beyond the ability of the social media companies to “fix it”.

And the onus is clearly on the companies. Like the industry codes that are being put together under the Online Safety Act, the responsibility for solving these problems has been put on the companies.

In the case of unmasking trolls, are they to do a 100-point check of Australian users? Should they hold database records of driver’s licence numbers, or digitised passports or some other primary identity document?

Is anyone comfortable with that?

“The point here is we want the social media companies to fix this,” Mr Morrison said.

“They’ve built this world and what they have to be able to do is ensure that when someone comes and says ‘who said this’, that they have an ability to be able to respond to that question and say it was them. So that’s up to them.”

“If the online company can’t tell us who it is, then they are liable,” the Prime Minister said flatly.

Incidentally, as the editor of and a director of the company that publishes it I am already liable for the content published on it, including the reader comments on stories. All of the comments left on the site are moderated (read by me for approval before they appear live on the site).

I don’t love anonymous comments. Generally, I believe people should have the courage of their convictions to put a name to it. But anonymity has a hugely important role in the healthy functioning of a free society. That is a simple reality.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. Aaron 2 years ago

    I suppose one other issue would be that federal government has introduced the identify and disrupt bill. They could quite easily within this framework, access someone else’s account, make some ridiculous comments then get them shutdown. This bill seems more likely the federal would use it to shutdown political dissent and quite possible smaller minor parties who may be a thorn in the side.

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