Australia’s Laws To Unmask Social Media Users Avoid the Root Issues: Think Tank

By Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev is an Australian reporter based in Perth covering energy, tech, and politics. He holds bachelor's degrees in math, physics, and computer science. Contact him at daniel.khmelev@epochtimes.com.au.
November 29, 2021 Updated: November 29, 2021

The Australian government’s move to introduce new legislation that forces social media platforms to disclose the identities of online trolls has been criticised as being ineffective in tackling how harmful comments spread online.

If passed, the new legislation would become one of the worlds strongest laws on online trolling, with social media companies considered publishers and held liable for defamatory comments posted on their platforms. However, the companies can avoid liability if they reveal the identity of individuals accused of defamation, which would allow legal proceedings to commence against the individual responsible for the trolling.

Announcing the proposed legislation on Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the online world should not be a wild west “where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just go around anonymously and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them.”

“That’s not Australia. That’s not what can happen in the real world, and there’s no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world,” he said.

“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.

“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,” the prime minister said.

Epoch Times Photo
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at the Tooheys Brewery in Sydney, Australia, Nov. 18, 2021. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

Under the regulation, companies would have to establish not only a new complaints reporting system to address defamatory remarks but may also mean new and existing users would have to provide identity documents to use services like Facebook or Twitter. It is also unclear what are the parameters around designating an individual as a “troll.”

However, the new laws have been met with concerns it would take the onus away from social media giants themselves to regulate the online environment.

In particular, Reset Australia—the Australian branch of a think tank focusing on digital threats to democracy—said that harmful and sensationalist claims made online were often perpetuated by social media giants’ attention-based business model.

“Social media companies promote, amplify and profit from hate—catching trolls won’t end online hate,” Executive Director of Reset Australia Chris Cooper said.

“The most pressing problem here is not trolls; it is the disproportionate reach of their content enabled by the algorithms of social media companies that prioritise sensational, outrageous and conspiratorial content—the form which defamatory content usually takes,” he said.

“Forcing social media companies responsible for coughing up the identity of individuals does not hold the platforms accountable for their profit-making amplification that enables that content to go viral.”

Cooper also pointed out that such powers would remove the shield offered to individuals, such as whistleblowers, who speak out against the government or its officials.

“Online anonymity does protect trolls from accountability, but it also is an important tenet of a free and open internet that protects critics of the powerful which can hold leaders accountable,” Cooper said.

A similar sentiment had previously been expressed by Twitter’s public policy director for Australia and New Zealand, Kara Hinesley, who argued that several groups at risk included journalists, whistleblowers, human rights defenders, and dissidents.

“Anonymity can be a form of protection and a critical tool for people,” Hinesley said, reported ZDNet.

ccp protest
Scores of exiled Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Chinese dissidents, and others burn down the flags of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and present a black coffin for the CCP in protest of its brutal rule in China in front of China’s consulate general in New York City, on July 1, 2021, its 100th anniversary. (Huang Xiaotang/The Epoch Times)

Hinesley said there was no apparent connection between anonymity and abusive behaviour online, with previous incidents illustrating many individuals did not use anonymous accounts to make abusive posts.

In particular, research published by Twitter in August revealed that of those accounts suspended for hurling racial abuse at three black members of an English soccer team after a loss, 99 percent were not anonymous.

“It’s not clear that anonymity is the primary driver of abusive and antisocial behaviour online. It’s even less clear that requiring government identification for social media would do anything to fix the situation,” she said.

“I want to emphasise—I cannot emphasise this enough—a tech solution cannot fix the social problem.”

Morrison first called for a social media identification system following rumours directed at the daughter of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Following the accusations, Joyce said social media organisations had become the catalyst for misinformation to spread and accused the platforms of inaction in addressing harmful posts made anonymously.

Joyce had expressed grievance over the proliferation of unverified rumours that had circulated social media.

“I think that we now have companies that make billions of dollars and people who profess to be multiple billionaires, but they don’t own responsibility for what’s happening on their platforms,” he said, reported The Australian.

Social media giants have been the target of scrutiny under the Morrison government, including a law that requires platforms to remove violent, offensive material and notify the police—or risk a fine equivalent to 10 percent of their annual global turnover.

Daniel Khmelev is an Australian reporter based in Perth covering energy, tech, and politics. He holds bachelor's degrees in math, physics, and computer science. Contact him at daniel.khmelev@epochtimes.com.au.