On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood before the press pack and announced “world-leading” new laws – set to be released in draft form this week – that could force social media companies to disclose the identities of anonymous accounts. The pitch: help everyday Australians pursue defamation cases, and crack down on online bullies.
“The rules that exist in the real world must exist in the digital and online world,” Morrison declared. “The online world shouldn’t be a wild west, where bots and bigots and trolls and others can anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people.”
Here’s how the new law would work: Imagine you see a comment posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and decide that it’s defamatory. Under the new anti-troll legislation, you could file a request that the comment be removed, via a complaints process that each social media platform will be forced to set up. If the user who posted the comment refuses to remove it, or if you decide you want to take further action, the social media company will then ask that user for consent to release their personal information to you – their name, email address and contact phone number, for example.
If the user doesn’t give consent, then a court order can be issued forcing the social media company to release it anyway.
This isn’t the first time the Australian government has attempted to unmask would-be trolls and social media bullies. Earlier this year, a proposal was put forward that internet users should be required to present 100 points of identification – such as a driver’s licence, birth certificate, Medicare card or passport – in order to open or maintain an existing Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account.
That measure was similarly intended to prevent people from using anonymous accounts to abuse and harass others, and was met with backlash for a raft of reasons including efficacy and privacy concerns.
The government’s latest anti-trolling measures have similarly raised eyebrows and red flags, as legal and media experts question how the legislation will meaningfully achieve what it sets out to without impinging on people’s basic rights and freedoms.
“The proposed legislation would affect everyday Australians in a number of ways,” Dr Faith Gordon, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s College of Law, told VICE.
“It would require social media companies to collect and provide information about users’ identities, and if someone makes a complaint companies will have to provide this information.”
“How online users’ information and data is to be collected, how it will be verified in the first place to ensure someone has not given fake or fraudulent details, as well as how harm perpetrated by someone in Australia using an international IP [address] will be identified and dealt with, are all issues we need to see more details on.”
Dr Gordon pointed out that identity verification measures come loaded with a complex range of challenges, including privacy issues and a lack of transparency around how those details and data will be used by companies.
A lack of detail from the federal government as to how these challenges are going to be navigated is only fuelling the concern. But, further to that, Dr Gordon raised doubts as to whether the legislation would be effective at cracking down on trolls, bigots and bullies at all.
“Defining ‘trolling,’ ‘hate’ and ‘harm’ are very subjective, and there is likely to be diversity in views and opinions on this,” she said. “The focus on defamation is unlikely to put a stop to bullying – or other forms of harm online.”
There are also concerns that Internet users with legitimate reasons for wanting anonymity – such as whistleblowers and victims of domestic violence – might be caught in the dragnet and exposed by the government’s staunch, broad stroke approach to shattering the “digital shield.” In that sense, it’s not hard to see how making it easier to expose people’s true identities online, and to access potentially sensitive personal details, might pose a danger for both perpetrators and victims of different kinds of abuse.
The equality of these anti-troll, anti-defamation laws is another cause for worry.
Pursuing a case against someone for defamation is a long and expensive process that requires certain quantities of time, money and legal literacy. As Dr Gordon pointed out, “not everyone will be able to afford to pursue this option.” And for that reason, Morrison’s declarations about protecting everyday Australians from online abuse have led some to question whether he might actually have someone else’s best interests at heart.
“It’s worth noting that several of the highest-profile current plaintiffs in Australian defamation cases involving social media defamation are to be found among the government itself,” Jennifer Beckett, a lecturer in media and communications at The University of Melbourne wrote this week in a piece for The Conversation. “So while it might sound cynical, we’re entitled to wonder whom this policy is really designed to help.”
Until the government releases more details about the specifics of this legislation, it’s hard to know exactly how worrisome it really is.
Some commentators have drawn potentially sensational links between the proposals set out in these legislative reforms and the current social media regulation model being used under the regime of the Chinese Communist Party.
Whatever the case, experts are already raising concerns around how these laws might affect what is perhaps the most hotly contested trend of how we interact online: freedom of speech and expression.
At his press conference on Sunday, Morrison said a “free society” such as Australia “is only free when that is balanced with the responsibility for what you say.”
However, Dr Derek Wilding, co-director at University of Technology Sydney’s centre for media transition, told VICE that these laws may make it too easy to silence free speech online.
“One of the problems here is the possible impact on free expression,” he said. “There’s a likelihood that online content will be taken down or delisted because it’s the subject of a complaint, even where the complaint is not valid or it’s something that someone dislikes without it actually being defamatory”.
Digital anonymity has, since its inception, been synonymous with free speech – and as the Australian government ramps up towards a 2022 federal election, “digital safety” is fast becoming a vital tentpole for any sort of re-election campaign.
How much of a threat that online anonymity actually poses, however, depends on who you are.
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