Concerns federal government's social media anti-bullying laws are 'unenforceable'

The federal government's proposed laws have provided a beacon of hope for people who have advocated against online bullying, but experts say it's more complicated than Australians think.

The federal government's announcement to crack down on online bullies and trolls has been met with skepticism from experts.

The federal government's announcement to crack down on online bullies and trolls has been met with skepticism from experts. Source: Getty

While the majority of Australians are in support of a crackdown on bullying and abuse on social media, the federal government's proposed laws have been criticised as unrealistic and unachievable by internet experts.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday announced the federal government will introduce new laws to parliament this week that will force social media platforms to expose the anonymity of users who post abusive, defamatory or offensive information online.

"The online world should not be a Wild West where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them,” the prime minister said. 


The social media platform will first be required to ask the user to delete the content. If the user refuses to do so, their identity can be revealed through a court order, and they risk being sued for defamation.

Bully Zero was founded by Ali Halkic after his son, Allem, lost his life to cyberbullying in 2009. Now, after more than a decade of advocacy against online abuse, the organisation said this announcement brings them "one step forward" to justice.

"We've been fighting ... to bring these anonymous trolls and bullies to the surface and to try and give those victims of bullying or trolling an option to seek recourse ... and ultimately, to save a life," Bully Zero CEO Janet Grima told SBS News.

Janet Grima is the CEO of not-for-profit organisation Bully Zero.
Janet Grima is the CEO of not-for-profit organisation Bully Zero. Source: SBS / , Supplied/Janet Grima

Ms Grima said the bill comes at a critical time after COVID-19 "created the perfect storm" and forced more people to access the digital world, with many subsequently experiencing online abuse.

According to the e-Safety Commissioner, youth-based cyberbullying shot up by 32 per cent during Australia's first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic between March and September last year.

"We honestly feel like it is one massive step towards eliminating online trolls and bullying for everybody. If this new legislation comes in and it saves one life, irrespective of whose life it is, it's ticking that box for us."

But social media experts have raised significant concerns about the feasibility of the proposals.

University of Sydney associate professor of online and convergent media, Fiona Martin, said Australia is unlikely to overcome the hurdles needed to achieve the sweeping reforms it has promised.

The United States - home to the world's major social media platforms - has powerful laws that shield Australia's attempt at shifting the responsibility of online abuse onto social media platforms.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US states that a provider or user of social media cannot be treated as the publisher of that information. This means that Australia is unlikely to place a real onus on social media companies, who are based in the US, as publishers of content carried on their platforms.

Fiona Martin is an associate professor of online and convergent media at the University of Sydney.
Fiona Martin is an associate professor of online and convergent media at the University of Sydney. Source: SBS / , Supplied/Fiona Martin

"What [this law] effectively does is take the responsibility of the individuals who are making these comments and putting it on the news companies, and I don't find that a workable solution," Professor Martin said. 

Another law in the US, known as the SPEECH Act, said that any foreign defamation judgment - including in Australia - is overridden by the US's national jurisdiction. This gives Australia little scope to fight against the world's digital giants, who are protected by US laws.

With this in mind, Professor Martin said the government's "political rhetoric" is "just an opportunity to grandstand before the election".

Instead of intimidating social media companies to expose the identities of bullies, Professor Martin believes the government should work alongside the platform to facilitate tighter regulations that are more achievable and just as effective.

"I'm targeting realistic approaches to regulation which can be enforced, rather than broad sweeping claims, which cannot be and they know they cannot be, " she said.

Australia's digital think tank Reset Australia said threats of defamation won't decrease online hate, which it said is caused by social media algorithms that amplify defamatory content. 

“Forcing social media companies to be 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," said Reset Australia's executive director Chris Cooper.

“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."

The proposed legislation has not yet been released.

The proposed bill comes a week after Defence Minister Peter Dutton was awarded $35,000 in damages after over a deleted 6-word tweet calling Mr Dutton a 'rape apologist'.

Mr Bazzi said he doesn't believe the proposed laws will target online abuse against vulnerable people and marginalised communities.

"[The bill] will however stifle free speech, particularly criticism of those in power," he said on Twitter.

Meta - formerly Facebook - has reserved possible comment until more information on the laws has been released. Google has declined to comment.

5 min read
Published 29 November 2021 at 5:33pm
By Rayane Tamer
Source: SBS