Australian government to introduce some of the world’s toughest ‘anti-troll’ laws, but experts say focus on defamation will not help reduce rates of online bullying or cyber hate .
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday that his government would introduce legislation this week in Parliament that would require social media companies to reveal the identity of anonymous trolling accounts and offer a way to prosecute those individuals for defamation.
Under the legislation, the laws would require social media companies to collect personal information from current and new users, and allow courts to access the identities of users to initiate defamation cases.
It is not known what personal data would be collected, but there are indications that it would include a phone number, email address and the user’s contact name.
In a major overhaul, the legislation would also change who is responsible for defamatory posts, from the organizations that manage the pages – such as news agencies – to the social media companies themselves.
On Sunday, Morrison said he wanted to ensure consistency between the rules in the real world and those online.
“The rules that exist in the real world must exist in the digital world and online,” he said.
“The online world shouldn’t be a Wild West, where bots, fanatics and trolls and others can walk around anonymously and harm people and hurt people.”
But cyber hate expert and author of the book Troll Hunting, Ginger Gorman, said the legislation would not do enough to tackle online abuse.
“Overall I would say it’s way too little too late – so much damage has already been done. And that doesn’t go far enough, ”Gorman said.
“The government needs to legislate a duty of care so that the public is protected by the platform,” she said.
“They continuously post blatant content and have no responsibility for it.”
She said that Germany, where business platforms can be fined up to € 50 million if they do not remove posts containing racist, defamatory or illegal comments within 24 hours, has showed that governments could take serious action.
“Media companies have shown for many decades that they won’t solve this problem on their own.
“Governments must therefore legislate to break them, reduce their power and enforce a public duty of care. “
Under the law, social media companies should have a complaints process in place, where people can request removal of content if they believe it is defamatory of them.
If the post is not removed, the user can request the personal details of the person who posted the content.
If they don’t agree to release them, a court order can be made, requiring the company to release them – and opening a way for complacent people to sue for libel.
Morrison said the government will support the initial cases, to help set a precedent.
“We will be looking for test cases that can strengthen these laws,” he said.
“So if digital companies or others think they’ll just have to deal with maybe someone of little money looking to pursue this, then we’ll look for those cases.
“We will support them in court and we will confront them. “
At the center of the legislation is the possibility for individuals to bring an action against the posting of the content, if they believe they have been defamed.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne of the University of Melbourne said libel is easier to determine than trolling and hate.
“Define some of these terms: Things like ‘hate online’ and ‘trolling’ are subjective,” she said.
“For example, are repeatedly expressed and strongly expressed opinions different from your lagging behind? Some people would say yes, others would say no.
One of the main problems with the proposed legislation is the collection of personal data and the complexities that come with it, she said.
“Who will pay for the verification?” If the data isn’t actually verified, I imagine the most problematic social media users will just enter fraudulent details without much deterrence.
Currently, social media companies have offered only “lackluster responses” to the trolling allegations, she said.
“With many complaints saying that invariably they just get an automated response from the social media company and nothing gets done. Users want a more proactive approach, but such an approach is resource intensive.
In September, the High Court ruled that Australian media companies could be held liable for defamatory comments posted on Facebook pages after Fairfax and Newscorp lost their appeal to evade defamation charges after third-party comments were made on their social media posts about Dylan Voller.
The Australian Law Council was quick to support the proposed transfer of responsibility.
The Chairman of the Law Council of Australia, Dr Jacoba Brasch QC, said care should be taken to ensure an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection of personal reputation.
“In the opinion of the Legal Council, a legislative framework that transfers responsibility to authors will help achieve this balance,” Brasch said.
“However, it is also important to recognize that intermediaries are responsible for their participation in the online environment and often benefit from the network effects of their pages or platforms.”