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  • Rikki Lambert

Troll-hunting bill takes aim at social media giants

Journalist and anti-trolling advocate Erin Molan appears before a January inquiry

The government's anti-trolling bill has been introduced to parliament, seeking to hold tech giants to account for online harassment - but an inquiry recently heard anti-trolling advocates say it won't go far enough.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher presented the new laws to the House of Representatives on Thursday, before the bill hit the Senate and was sent to a committee.

The proposed laws seek to force social media platforms to take down post featuring online harassment, and potentially provide identities of anonymous posters.

Mr Fletcher said the bill was designed to "ensure defamation law is fit for purpose in the digital age":

"It is in the nature of social media that defamatory posts may go viral and may be disseminated to a wide audience, amplifying the harm.
"The Australian government is committed to keeping Australians safe from online harm including from the harmful impacts of defamatory material posted anonymously on social media."

The bill had previously drawn criticism for not containing the word "troll" despite it being labelled "anti-trolling" legislation, but the minister said the title referenced positing defamatory material is a form of trolling.

He noted trolling ranges from "really annoying to criminal".

"This bill provides a powerful tool to Australians who have been subjected to defamatory attacks by social media trolls and who may be considering legal proceedings to protect themselves."

Noelle Martin, a lawyer and survivor of online abuse, told a parliamentary committee in mid-January the planned laws were narrowly targeted, calling financial penalties proposed for tech companies failing to keep people safe on their platforms are "chump change" unlikely to achieve meaningful reform:

"If this committee is serious about online safety, unmasking trolls and improving responsibility by social media companies ... this bill contains fundamental flaws," she said.

As a teenager, Ms Martin discovered images of herself had been edited onto pornographic pictures and distributed online.

Almost a decade later, the perpetrators have not been punished and many of the fake images remain on pornographic websites.

Anti-trolling campaigner and journalist Erin Molan shared at the same inquiry her experience of being targeted repeatedly with abusive direct messages on social media. Ms Molan became emotional as she recounted some of the abuse which made her fear for her life and her young daughter's safety.

"I reported some horrific messages from an account that kept being recreated no matter how many times I blocked it, but Facebook said the messages 'didn't meet the threshold' for inappropriate content.
"The consequences should lie with big tech. They generate a huge amount of money and with that comes the responsibility to ensure users are safe."

Criminologist Michael Salter told the committee Ms Molan's experience of reporting abuse to social media companies was common among victims. He said victims are often failed by the lack of action taken by social media giants.

"We're asking for transparency because far too often what we're provided from social media company reports on these issues ... is statistics that are most friendly to them," he said.
"Having basic safety expectations built into platforms from the get-go is not too much to expect from an online service provider."

On Thursday 20 January when the social media giants fronted the inquiry, Labor MP Tim Watts questioned Google on their "three strikes" policy for YouTube, where accounts that post content against company guidelines three times are closed. He referenced nine complaints he had made against videos on the United Australia Party's YouTube channel. Mr Watts claimed six videos were taken down as a result of the complaints but the account was still active.

Google spokesperson Lucinda Longcroft said if a number of complaints are made at the same time they are bundled into one "strike".

Appearing before the inquiry the same day, Meta policy head Mia Garlick said any reports Facebook put profits above the safety of their users are "categorically untrue".

Minister Fletcher also said on Thursday that the bill "urgently responds" to the High Court's Voller decision, which found media organisations are liable for third-party comments.

Mr Fletcher said the government was concerned the added liability risks may have had a "chilling effect" on free speech, with page owners censoring or disabling comments for "fear of being held liable for content they did not post".

A parliamentary inquiry into social media and online safety that examined the bill across a number of public hearings has not yet been completed, with a final report due to be tabled on Tuesday.


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