Social media giants could be forced to remove harmful online abuse against Australians within 24 hours from next year after a proposed, world-first “takedown scheme” received millions of dollars in funding.
The three-year, $39 million investment was pledged in this year’s Budget months before Australia’s Online Safety Act was due to become law but experts say the reform is overdue, with reports of online abuse rising and Australian laws unable to keep up with increasing online threats and attacks.
The “adult cyber abuse takedown scheme” will be run by Australia’s eSafety Commissioner and will form part of a new Online Safety Act due to be introduced to parliament before the end of the year.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the scheme was designed to give the Commissioner “further tools to protect Australians from seriously harmful material” on social media.
“The new Act will also set out very clearly our expectations of the giant digital companies when it comes to keeping Australians – children and adults – safe online,” he said.
“Australians are sick of the increasing toxicity of the internet, particularly where our kids are being exposed to harms such as cyberbullying, violent pornography and image-based abuse.”
eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said cyber abuse had skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, with adults now the most targeted group for online hate and bullying, and suffering real-world harm as a result.
“The tenor, tone and velocity of adult cyber abuse has heightened over the past six months, with the number of reports into eSafety surpassing youth cyberbullying reports,” she said.
“Adult cyber abuse can have devastating impacts on individuals, leading to lingering emotional and mental distress.”
Online abuse reports to the eSafety Commission rose by 87 per cent between March and August this year compared to 2019, she said, with women targeted in two out of every three incidents.
“We know that women who experience online hate are 1.6 times more likely to be targeted and demeaned as a result of their gender or physical appearance than men,” she said.
Adults were also regularly singled out for abuse from strangers, Ms Inman Grant said, based on their “ethnicity, religion, sexuality and disability”.
The online abuse takedown scheme would encourage victims to report “menacing, harassing or offensive” messages targeting them on social networks if they were designed to cause “serious distress or harm”.
Victims must first report abuse to the social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but could request help from the eSafety Commission if their pleas went unanswered.
The scheme, which would see the Commission order 24-hour takedown directions, would also cover messaging services WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger.
Swinburne University social media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said it was vital that Australians had an advocate with powers to force social networks to remove online abuse, as the tech firms were often slow to address harmful online content.
She said Australia’s laws had also failed to keep up with online threats, including revenge porn and doxing, in which an individual’s personal contact details were published online for widespread harassment.
“Many of Australia’s laws were written before the internet,” Dr Barnet said.
“Using a carriage service to menace is from back in the days when people would call their partner 20 times. These days it takes place across social media, and we need laws specific to social media.”
The proposed Online Safety Act will also set out safety expectations for social media platforms, include more cyberbullying protections for children, and deliver additional powers for the eSafety Commissioner to respond to online crisis events.
Originally published as Social media on notice over abuse