News Morrison’s ‘anti-trolling’ plan won’t stop abuse
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Morrison’s ‘anti-trolling’ plan won’t stop abuse

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Scott Morrison and Michaelia Cash unveiled the laws on Sunday. Photo: AAP
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The Morrison government’s so-called “anti-trolling” plan won’t stop online abuse, social media experts have warned, but fears have been raised it could lead to vulnerable people being “doxxed”.

The planned changes to defamation law have been painted by Prime Minister Morrison as, in particular, being about keeping children safe online from bullying and harassment. Tech experts say they don’t believe it will come close to meeting that goal.

“The intentions seem to be good but there’s an awful lot of holes,” said Dr Jay Daniel Thompson, a social media expert at RMIT University.

“It’s unlikely to make much of a dent on online hostility. It’s unclear to me how that could happen.”

On Sunday, Mr Morrison announced long-hyped changes to the nation’s defamation laws. One section updates legislation to codify that social platforms like Facebook or Twitter are publishers of comments, not the owner of a page on which they are made. It supercedes a controversial High Court judgement in the case of Dylan Voller, which ruled media outlets, as the owners of the page, were liable for defamatory comments published on their online posts.

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The new laws would apply to Facebook, Twitter and more. Photo: Getty

That was welcomed as a sensible reform by media publishers and legal experts. But a second part, heralded by Mr Morrison and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash as “anti-trolling”, would unmask anonymous users who posted defamatory comments, in order for them to be sued for defamation by complainants.

The social platforms would be compelled to hand over the real name, phone number and email address of anonymous users, as well as any “other details” later specified by the government, if a person wished to pursue defamation action. If social platforms refused to collect and hand over contact information for those users, the platform itself could be sued as the publisher.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment this week.

Mr Morrison said the laws would “ensure our kids are safe” by ensuring social media companies “make it safe for our kids, for our families and our community”.

But despite the legislation literally being named the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill, numerous media and online experts quickly disputed that claim, pointing out children and ordinary families are unlikely to sue for defamation in expensive, time-intensive trials.

Dr Thompson, a lecturer in RMIT’s school of media and communications who researches online hostility, said defamation changes would be of little relevance to stopping bullying or harassment.

“Not all online abuse could be called ‘defamatory’. Someone DMing ‘kill yourself’ or receiving rape threats is absolutely devastating, but that message, as toxic as it is, cannot be classified as defamatory,” he told The New Daily.

“The legislation might deter some online anonymous antagonism, but it’s difficult to really get a sense of how, if at all, it can combat online hostility. I don’t think there will be much of an impact.”

Mr Morrison noted many people might simply be happy with a better complaints mechanism to get content removed – which the legislation also provides for – rather than pursuing formal legal action.

The federal government has taken action on online bullying in other ways, including expanding powers of the eSafety Commissioner and proposing age verification for opening a social account.

Other experts pointed out many people who don’t use their real names on social media may have legitimate, non-nefarious reasons. Corporate whistleblowers, political activists, people fleeing domestic violence, or people in jobs with strict social media policies have been cited by privacy experts.

Mr Morrison said there would be “protections” against “vexatious” complaints, if people aimed to unmask anonymous users without justification. The legislation allows a social platform to refuse a request if they believe the complaint doesn’t “genuinely relate” to a potential defamation proceeding.

But the legislation also provides for a complainant to request the commenter’s details if they are merely “dissatisfied with the handling of the defamation complaint” by the social media service.

Dr Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University, warned targeting anonymous users could have dangerous consequences.

The government claims the changes would stop online abuse. Photo: Getty

“They’re dismantling anonymity on social media, which has so many ramifications I don’t think they understand, on people who aren’t powerful. On people who are scared of someone,” Dr Barnet told TND.

“There’s many scenarios where anonymity is important to your physical safety. Attacking anonymity on social media won’t stop trolling, but it’ll put sections of our community in danger.”

Dr Barnet noted the protections against vexatious complaints, but worried of the potential for stalkers or domestic abusers to contact victims, claiming such users would be “doxxed” or have their private information exposed.

She, too, had reservations over whether the legislation would help curb abuse and bullying, claiming it would have “limited use” only for people who could already afford to mount a defamation case.

“This will benefit people who already have power, it’s not going to help the vast majority of people subject to abuse and trolling,” Dr Barnet said.

“It’s a very specific set of criteria … it doesn’t encompass all types of abuse online.”

Justin Warren, a technology expert and chief analyst at tech company PivotNine, agreed. He feared the government would simply make it easier for people to pursue defamation action they would have already taken.

“It’s pro-defamation legislation, it’s not anti-trolling. It won’t do a thing to stop trolling,” Mr Warren told TND.

“It will allow powerful people to silence their critics … it’s the opposite of assistance for people being trolled, the only people it will help are people with plenty of other ways to address it.”

Mr Warren noted the legislation relied on geolocation technology to determine whether a comment was made in Australia – a mechanism he claimed anyone could “bypass in about four seconds” using a VPN (virtual private network).

He also feared that, since ‘burner’ or temporary email accounts and phone numbers were commonly used, social media networks may be compelled to capture more personal data from users, so as to avoid remaining liable for defamatory content.

“It incentivises Facebook to either delete comments pre-emptively, or to make sure they quickly disappear. I think they will over-censor things to avoid any liability, which will chill dissent,” Mr Warren warned.